General David Petraeus’s resignation as director of the US Central Intelligence Agency is a heavy blow to President Barack Obama. As he prepares for his second term in the White House, Mr Obama knows he will confront a range of tough national security challenges, such as the stand-off with Iran, the Syrian civil war and US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
On all of these, Gen Petraeus, widely respected for his service in Iraq and Afghanistan, would have been an important source of advice. His resignation over an extramarital affair – at a time when other leading figures are already set to leave the administration – is something Mr Obama could ill-afford.
For now, much attention is on the circumstances surrounding the general’s affair. There are still questions to clarify, such as why the FBI failed to notify the White House and Congress immediately after it discovered details of the relationship. But as he prepares to choose a new CIA director, the president might also take the chance to review the agency’s counter-terrorism strategy, reining in its excesses.
Since the September 11 2001 attacks, the CIA has shifted from being an intelligence-gathering operation to a paramilitary organisation that kills terrorist suspects in Pakistan, the Middle East and Africa. Gen Petraeus’s appointment to the CIA in 2011 after 37 years in the military crystallised that shift. This year he reportedly ordered a big expansion in the CIA’s fleet of killer drones to step up operations against jihadists. But such drone operations are increasingly questionable on legal, moral and political grounds.
America’s regular military has long used surveillance and killer drones to complement operations in Afghanistan. But it tends to account publicly for such operations. The CIA, however, operates drones from secret bases, killing suspected terrorists with no accountability to outside bodies.
In Mr Obama’s second term, this policy must change. Such actions are not only legally questionable, they ultimately act against US interests. As Kurt Volker, the former US ambassador to Nato under George W. Bush, has argued, they give foreigners the impression that the US is a country “with a permanent kill list”.
Mr Obama should use the forced changeover at the CIA to review policy. He should work with the CIA, the military and Congress to forge a more structured and transparent approach on drones.
Financial Times, 12-11-2012