Going Dark: As CIA Boss, Petraeus Is Less Visible--By Design

Once an outspoken general, Petraeus has morphed into the quiet keeper of the nation's deepest secrets.

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Things change when one leaves the often-brash U.S. military to run the Central Intelligence Agency, a secretive organization populated by silent professionals. That includes how often one talks to reporters when charged with keeping the lone global superpower's deepest secrets.

Gen. David Petraeus was one of the U.S. military's most-visible leaders from 2007 until 2011, a span during which he commanded U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and also headed the U.S. Central Command. But CIA Director Petraeus has largely gone dark--and, like most things with the decorated war commander, that is very much a calculated change.

"As for Petraeus's curious absence from the spotlight," says Christopher Preble of the CATO Institute, "he has been--especially by David Petraeus standards--notably quiet."

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Data prepared for U.S. News & World Report by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism shows a significant decline in the number of times Petraeus conducted interviews or was the subject of a news article. The agency, since he took office in October, has released eight press releases or statements bearing Petraeus's name; two were for the public, and six were memos to CIA employees that were released to the press.

"Director Petraeus heads a clandestine organization, so naturally--as the American people would expect--his outside engagement will be different than when he commanded forces in Iraq and Afghanistan," says Preston Golson, a CIA spokesman. "He's given about a dozen public speeches, and he regularly engages in multiple ways with private citizens, the military, members of the media, think tanks, academia, and the private sector. There is nothing preventing him from doing media interviews, if it makes sense to do so."

During his 20 months as the top U.S. general in Iraq, Petraeus conducted over 350 media interviews, briefings or other engagements, says Steve Boylan, a retired Army colonel who was Petraeus's public affairs officer in Iraq in 2007 and 2008.

"His personal and professional feelings on the media were this: Someone in his position, a uniformed senior leader, has a duty and responsibility to talk to the media to inform the public of what's going with their husbands, sons, daughters," Boylan says. "It's the public's military, not his. He felt a responsibility to report our goals and keep the public informed."

The U.S. military rumbles through the streets in 14-ton blast-resistant vehicles and tears through the skies in noisy helicopters and supersonic jets. The CIA quietly deploys its operatives around the globe with fake identities, and its analysts toil in rural northern Virginia's relatively anonymity.

As soon as the war hero was confirmed by the Senate last fall, "the landscape changed," Boylan says. "What comes out of the duty description is the informing part because of the highly classified nature of what he does now, and of what that organization does.

"I don't think it would be possible, nor should it be expected, that he would have the same level of media engagements as when he was in uniform," Boylan says. "Anyone who expects that he would doesn't appreciate the role that he has now."

National security experts and senior lawmakers applaud Petraeus's lower profile.

"I think Gen. Petraeus is doing the right thing. I just don't think a CIA director best serves the country by saying a lot," says Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "A CIA director is much better served being quiet and working behind the scenes, given the nature of that organization."

Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee--where Petraeus is a "real hero"--says Petraeus is "one of those folks who wakes up in the morning and just does his job. He doesn't worry about or go looking for cameras."

Larry Korb, a former Pentagon official now with the Center for American Progress, says the former general is merely following a long precedent. "CIA directors normally don't speak out," says Korb. "It's very, very rare unless an administration asks you to."