For Petraeus, the CIA Was an Uncomfortable Fit

The decorated general struggled to adapt to the agency's insular culture

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David Petraeus submitted his resignation as director of the CIA on November 9, 2012 citing an extramarital affair.

For those raised on a diet of John Le Carre and James Bond, it will come as a surprise that the Central Intelligence Agency is a moody, sensitive place that relies as much on morale as on machismo. “A lot of power comes from moral authority,” says former CIA chief Gen. Michael Hayden, “because you’re asking people to do stuff that’s really on the edge, legally and politically, and they have to sense that you’re the guy they can trust.”

In that world, General David Petraeus was never a comfortable fit. Sure, as a seasoned field commander and political operator, Petraeus was “rigorous, intelligent, curious and demanding,” says one former senior intelligence official. But the agency has always been suspicious of the uniformed military and hates being given commands. “The agency’s not a militaristic organization,” says another senior former intelligence official. “They don’t welcome people barking orders without debate.”

That was the first problem Petraeus faced when he took off his uniform and went to work in Langley on Sept. 6, 2011. But it wasn’t the only one. He was following a guy with a magic touch, Leon Panetta, who had fought the White House on the CIA’s behalf and convinced the President to trust the agency and go after Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. “[Petraeus] had the disadvantage of following Panetta, who was well liked, and a people person and down-to-earth,” says the former senior intelligence official.

Petraeus wasn’t heading into this new, fraught world unawares. He consulted the former CIA and Pentagon Chief Robert Gates, who told him not to make the mistake of entering the building with a big boarding party of aides–a move that doomed Stan Turner, John Deutch and Porter Goss, marking them from the start as outsiders. But the downside of that was Petraeus had no one close enough to him to give frank advice.

Within the CIA, there’s a fair amount of sympathy for Petraeus. He wasn’t hated at the agency the way Goss or Deutch were. “The place wasn’t dysfunctional,” says the former senior intelligence official. The agency now finds itself leaderless again. “Beyond being a personal tragedy,” says former CIA director Hayden, Petraeus’s replacement “will be the fifth director of the CIA in a little over eight years. That inherently is not a good thing.”