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Petraeus works to improve relations with lawmakers

CIA Director David H. Petraeus will have a dual mission when he testifies about worldwide threats at a Senate intelligence committee hearing Tuesday.

He also is working to improve relations with some powerful lawmakers and their staff on the congressional oversight committees.

At issue is what the retired Army general’s critics call his guarded approach, especially compared to that of his back-slapping predecessor, now-Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta. Some also complain that Petraeus has failed to adequately explain why the pace of CIA drone missile attacks in Pakistan has dropped since he took over the spy service in September.

Petraeus’ storied 37-year career in the Army, including commanding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has given him significant credibility on Capitol Hill. But even supporters acknowledge that his shift to a civilian agency has been wobbly at times.

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He has faced a difficult transition from “a chest full of medals and drivers and assistants and information and ‘Yes sir!’ into an agency where you’re a director and not a commander,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate intelligence committee, said in a telephone interview.

Dealing with congressional oversight committees is “a role that may not come easily to a four-star general,” Feinstein added. “But with him, it has. He’s been very forthright with me.”

Several aides on the House and Senate committees, however, say Petraeus has not always accommodated lawmakers’ schedules when he plans classified briefings and has limited the briefings’ duration so some questions go unanswered.

The aides, who asked for anonymity while discussing classified briefings, said he also has balked at providing some classified information that members have requested. They declined to provide details.

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The CIA strongly denied any rift with the committees, or any disputes over scheduling, information or access.

Petraeus “deeply values his relationships with the intelligence oversight committees,” said Preston Golson, a CIA spokesman. He said Petraeus “has gone to great lengths to make himself available to the Hill” and had 37 “in-person interactions” with members of Congress since September.

“He has set a very fast pace for congressional engagement,” Golson said.

The CIA is infamous for challenging outsiders, especially from the Pentagon, and Petraeus has won plaudits for not bringing his former military aides to his new job. Some officials close to the agency praise major espionage operations he has approved but say he has clashed with senior officers at the counter-terrorism center, a powerful fiefdom inside the agency that helps run the covert drone war.

Those officers are frustrated by the drop-off in drone strikes in Pakistan, including an undeclared two-month moratorium that ended Jan. 11, according to several current and former U.S. officials. In interviews, one member of Congress and four senior aides from the House and Senate committees said they were upset as well.

“There are different stories coming out of different people in the agency,” one congressional source said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the CIA’s drone program is classified. “There is an issue of how up front [Petraeus] is being with members.”

CIA officials would not discuss the covert program, but a senior U.S. official acknowledged that a misunderstanding had emerged because the term “rules of engagement” meant different things to the former Army general and to civilian analysts.

“It seems a brief and honest disconnect in the terminology used for describing the tactical and strategic considerations the program is responsive to,” the senior official said. “I think you’d find now people are on the same page.”

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The CIA has launched 17 drone strikes in Pakistan since Petraeus took over last September, including three this month, according to the New America Foundation, a think tank that tracks reported attacks. That was down from an average of two a week under Panetta, who authorized 215 drone attacks in just over two years.

But critics in the CIA’s counter-terrorism center have told allies on Capitol Hill that the fall-off has reduced pressure on Al Qaeda.

The senior U.S. official disputed that, saying Al Qaeda and its militant allies suffered major losses in Pakistan last fall, including the deaths of five senior commanders or planners. Overall, they say, the CIA campaign has been so successful that only a handful of Al Qaeda leaders remain alive in Pakistan.

“After such successes, it’s natural that important targets would go into even deeper hiding and it would take time to find them,” the official said.

“Part of the success of this program over time is the willingness to continuously examine and improve it,” the official added.

Some lawmakers find the CIA argument persuasive, and support Petraeus’ decision to slow the attacks, especially at a time when U.S. relations with Pakistan are in a perilous state.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), a member of the House intelligence committee, said fewer drone strikes “gives the militants greater freedom of action. But how significant is that? Probably in the short term, not very significant. There’s obviously a trade-off here, and I think the administration has made the right call.”

ken.dilanian@latimes.com


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