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June 22, 2011


The Challenge For Panetta, Petraeus
By William S. Cohen

President Barack Obama's announcement Wednesday night about the pace of troop withdrawal in Afghanistan will have far-reaching implications for the new secretary of defense and CIA director, both of whom are beginning their tenures amid enormous policy and fiscal challenges. Their collaboration will be critical as the administration grapples with internal, congressional and public expectations regarding the U.S. presence overseas.

The increasingly intertwined relationship between the Central Intelligence Agency and the military was on display during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden -- a mission carried out by Navy SEALs operating under the command of the CIA.

Now, the CIA director who commanded those military forces, Leon Panetta, is poised to become the next secretary of defense, while one of our nation's most accomplished military officers, Gen. David Petraeus, is poised to lead the CIA.

Should both men be confirmed -- Panetta was confirmed Tuesday, and Petraeus's hearing is scheduled for Thursday -- they will be in a position to cement the progress that has been made in military-intelligence cooperation.

Panetta and Petraeus are likely to confront major challenges when it comes to the interaction of their organizations. There has been long-standing mistrust between the intelligence community and the military services, differences in both mission and methods. But this has been easing as they move toward fully integrated cooperation in a host of hot spots today.

Congress still remains deeply concerned by a blurring of authorities between the CIA and the Defense Department. For example, CIA covert actions must be approved by the president and are subject to legally binding congressional notification. Meanwhile, the defense secretary has vastly more independent control over Pentagon clandestine military operations -- which are subject to much less-extensive congressional oversight. If they are confirmed, Panetta and Petraeus must work with Congress to clarify those questions.

But to succeed in their new positions, they also must resist the temptation to view their new undertakings through the prism of their last assignments.

At the Defense Department, Panetta will be responsible for leading our nation's armed forces at a time when they are engaged in hostilities on three continents. But he must also ensure that our military can prevail in the conflicts of the future. He must do so during a fiscal crisis that is likely to require difficult decisions -- including, almost certainly, cuts in federal programs and the Pentagon.

President Barack Obama already has slowed the growth in the core defense budget and has now directed $400 billion in cuts over 10 years from the national security account, the large majority of which will most likely come from the Defense Department. These reductions will require difficult choices by the new defense secretary to ensure that our forces remain the best in the world.

Panetta's predecessor, Secretary Robert Gates, has prepared the department for the flattening of the military budget. But, as Gates put it recently, "the proverbial low-hanging fruit -- those weapons and other programs considered most questionable -- have not only been plucked; they have been stomped on and crushed."

With most of the easy decisions already made, Panetta inherits the difficult job of ensuring that fiscal restraint does not hollow out a fighting force that has been stretched by a decade of global conflict. He must supply vision and direction for an institution that may spend more in fiscal 2012 on military construction and family housing than the entire CIA budget.

For his part, Petraeus wrote the book on counterinsurgency policy -- literally. He possesses a keen sense of the intelligence our military needs to fight the war on terror.

But he must now be equally vigilant in focusing the men and women of the CIA on the agency's long-standing mission of analyzing long-term global threats to U.S. national security -- both in terms of traditional military rivals and post-Sept. 11 asymmetric threats. Even as the CIA was closing in on Osama bin Laden, the agency -- like the rest of Washington -- seemed caught by surprise by the Arab Spring that is still roiling the Middle East.

More surprises are certainly in store in the decade to come. So while the CIA must continue to focus on the transnational terrorist threats, it must also monitor emerging threats in the Middle East, South Asia and beyond.

Running an intelligence community element is likely to require some adjustments on Petraeus's part. For example, as a military commander in the field, he often supplemented the Washington-based intelligence community assessments, which are prepared for policymakers, by adding a "commander's view" from in-country on the conflicts he was fighting. Such additions to intelligence assessments run against the current of tradition.

It may take the CIA rank and file time to adjust to having a battlefield commander in their midst. Though Petraeus retires from the military when he assumes his new post, he can win over the men and women of the agency by showing, in concrete ways, that he is removing his uniform figuratively as well as literally. And, like Panetta, he will have to lead his new organization through a period of budget cuts, as the entire intelligence community shrinks and field operations in Iraq and Afghanistan begin to draw down with our forces.

Obama has made excellent choices in his nominations of these two men. With their confirmation hearings this week, Panetta and Petraeus have a chance to send a signal to Congress -- and to the men and women they are preparing to lead -- that they understand the challenges they face in their new posts and how they intend to adjust their thinking to meet them.

William S. Cohen has served as secretary of defense and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He is now chairman of The Cohen Group, an international business advisory firm.


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