In most countries, secrecy shrouds the workings of state intelligence services. Israel's Mossad sets a gold standard for such organizations, especially in operational effectiveness. Almost invariably, Mossad chiefs are promoted from within and possess extensive operational experience.
By comparison, the U.S. CIA faces far greater public scrutiny. Its successes are hidden (as they should be), while the press trumpets its failures and ambitious policymakers attack the agency on the floor of Congress -- sometimes leaking sensitive information to the press. In the struggle between transparency and accountability, transparency often wins.
Not counting interims, retired Gen. David H. Petraeus was the 23rd director in the agency's 66-year history, going back to Rear Adm. Sidney Souers and Lt. Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg, whose tenures antedated the founding of the CIA in 1947. Allen Dulles, brother of John Foster Dulles, held the post for seven years during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. George Tenet's directorship, running from July 1997 to July 2004, bridged the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. History may well record that Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden, whose tenure ran from May 2006 to February 2009, was the most professional director in recent memory. His entire military career was spent in Air Force intelligence.
Before implementing reforms in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, the director of central intelligence (DCI) headed both the agency and the larger intelligence community, which consisted of 14 entities, including the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. The DCI also advised the president and the National Security Council (NSC). On April 26, 2005, the newly established director of national intelligence (DNI) assumed the roles of head of the intelligence community and principal adviser to the president and NSC, lowering the CIA director's status and influence. It was telling that Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., not President Obama, swore in Mr. Petraeus.
While there have been notable exceptions, such as William Colby, a true "spymaster" who earned his spurs in the 1960s as the Saigon station chief before serving as DCI in the latter years of the Nixon and Ford administrations, directors often have been in the mold of Leon E. Panetta or, earlier, George H.W. Bush -- Washington insiders selected for political clout and established leadership credentials. Mr. Petraeus brought to the job his impeccable military credentials and grasp of strategic issues, including expertise in terrorism and counterinsurgency.
Mr. Petraeus' resignation underscores the need to reform the mechanism for selecting the nation's top spy. Here's how:
First, eliminate the DNI -- a political appointee -- and reinstate the DCI as head of all U.S. intelligence with statutory authority to act as head. Second, the DCI should be selected from within the intelligence community by a board of trustees. Third, only Congress, through impeachment or at the recommendation of the CIA board of trustees, should be able to remove the DCI.
By statute, the CIA board of trustees should consist of seven or nine persons, with the chairman rotating every six months. Political bipartisanship requires four Republicans, four Democrats and one independent. Two would come from academe, two should be retired members of the intelligence community, two from industry and two retired military. One person might be a "distinguished American" at large, drawn from any number of appropriate backgrounds.
All candidates for DCI must come from within the intelligence community writ large. When the position comes open, they would apply just as they might for any federal job within the Senior Executive Service, except that there would be no hiring from the outside: Only experienced intelligence officers need apply. Operational experience also should be weighed heavily in the selection, rendering more Colbys and fewer Panettas. Additionally, other than a one-year probationary period, at the end of which the board must confirm or remove the director, there would be no time limit on the DCI's tenure. It also should be possible for the director to resign and return to another, lesser position within the community. Otherwise, the appointment, subject to Senate confirmation, would be analogous to the appointment of a justice to the U.S. Supreme Court. After the probationary period, only impeachment or removal for cause by majority vote of the board of trustees could end the DCI's tenure. No DCI should ever serve "at the pleasure" of any president.
In a democracy, the director of the nation's top security organization must be nonpolitical and understand the craft of intelligence, as did Colby and Mr. Hayden. Other than the president, the person who knows and keeps the nation's secrets is the most powerful person in the land.
The Petraeus affair is symptomatic of a fault lying deep within the system. His resignation, coming just as questions abound regarding Benghazi, begs some hard questions.
Earl Tilford, former Air Force intelligence officer, is a military historian for terrorism and the Middle East with the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.