This morning, the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville hosted CIA Director David H. Petraeus.  The event was not publicized and required a ticket for admission. As chair of the Political Science Department, I was invited to hear the talk — and had a seat very near the front and center of the stage, less than 25 feet from the speakers. Unfortunately, very few students outside of the (approximately 40) McConnell Scholars were invited to the event.

The lecture hall was instead filled with older guests, including many veterans and some active duty servicemen (and women, though I didn’t see many), local elites important to the University and Center, faculty, administrators, etc. I sat between a veteran and a banker with a famous local name. Senator McConnell was on the stage with the scholars, as was his spouse, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, University President James Ramsey, and Center Director Gary Gregg.

Petraeus spoke on the subject of leadership, a central concern for the McConnell Center and its students. Unfortunately, the former four star General gave a half hour talk that began with a very long introduction thanking his various hosts (and a couple of jokes) and ended with many platitudes that were not especially provocative. 

In between that long intro and weak conclusion, the body of the speech addressed 4 main points (Petraeus called them tasks of leadership) and employed primarily examples from the 2007 Iraq surge “success” to illustrate them:

  1. Get the big idea right (in this case, counterinsurgency strategy)
  2. Communicate effectively throughout the organization
  3. Implement the ideas
  4. Capture the lessons: refine and repeat

Petraeus did not take questions at the end.

That last fact was especially disappointing to me since it seemed like Petraeus ignored the elephant in the room. After all, the Iraq war started in March 2003 and the insurgency was a fairly significant problem not long after the successful U.S. capture of Baghdad. Why did it take so many years to “get the big idea right”? More importantly, how was Petraeus able to convince political leaders of the need for his favored strategy in a context that so obviously started by getting the big ideas WRONG?

In some ways, I think the problems I had with this particular speech and event parallel many of the most common criticisms levied against the CIA.

Why was the event secret? Guests were asked not to publicize the event because of security, but the CIA is frequently accused of excessive secrecy in the name of security. The McConnell Center has often hosted serving Secretaries of State, Ambassadors, Senators,and other political dignataries. Most were advertised in advance and the events were milked for PR purposes. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s address was so highly anticipated that people on campus could watch a live-stream of the event. Does a former first lady, President’s spouse, prominent presidential candidate, and serving Secretary of State face lower security threats?

I suspect that the visit of the CIA Director was not advertised because someone feared that left-leaning members of the campus community might organize a distracting protest outside the facility. Even if this is CIA policy, I challenge the rationale behind the policy.

The failure to invite a larger sample of the general student population, the decision to invite dozens of local elites, and the lack of questioning suggests another problem with the CIA. It has a reputation for not being especially accountable to various constituencies.

I’m sure organizers felt as if the event went off well, like an uncontested slam dunk.