USC Price School of Public Policy

USC’s Petraeus, Treverton examine intelligence policy in today’s era of ‘fake news’

December 12, 2017

To view the full event video, please click here »

By Matthew Kredell

As the United States faces an unprecedented array of complex national security threats, retired General David H. Petraeus joined USC International Relations Professor Gregory Treverton to discuss the challenges of intelligence policy in era of “fake news.”

“Talking Sense in a Messy World: Intelligence in the Trump Era” was co-hosted Nov. 29 by the USC Price School of Public Policy and the USC Dornsife School of International Relations. The event was part of a series of activities for Petraeus during his week-long visit to the University Park campus.

The event featured two of the country’s foremost intelligence authorities. Petraeus – a Judge Widney Professor at USC, with a joint appointment at the Price School – reached the level of four-star general for the U.S. Army before serving as director of the CIA. Treverton served as chair of the U.S. National Intelligence Council.

Leading off the discussion, Petraeus asserted that, despite turmoil on the surface, President Trump’s foreign policy in his first year in office has not differed much from his predecessors.

“If you asked me what surprised me the most, it might be that despite the tweets, despite the rhetoric, despite the occasional lack of what might be charitably termed message discipline, I would describe the foreign policy that has emerged as more characterized by continuity than by change,” Petraeus said.

He pointed to China as one of the most prominent examples. As President-elect, Trump took a phone call from the Taiwanese president, then tweeted about it. But he later embraced the One-China policy. Other examples of continuity mentioned by Petraeus included ultimately embracing NATO and supporting the two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Treverton asked Petraeus about the difficulty of doing intelligence work in a period where truth seems subjective and false facts are prevalent, which makes it all the more important for intelligence to determine what is most likely true and what is not.

“I think facts are facts,” Petraeus said. “When the intelligence community says we have high confidence in a particular assessment, that means it is – to the best of everyone’s ability – very accurate. That doesn’t mean the community always gets it right.”

Many of the students in attendance raised their hands to answer Petraeus’ question as to who has interest in working for an intelligence agency. To those students, Petraeus urged that they try to complete an internship while they are in school, noting that there are college interns in the CIA.

He told the story of starting a program called “Run with the Director” when he headed the CIA. He had instructed people not to join him on his morning run unless they could run six miles in 42 minutes or better. He had hoped to get to know mid-level staff, but it was the college interns who showed up.

“It’s a tremendous program and gives you a huge leg up, especially if you’re trying to go to the CIA,” Petraeus said. “But you have to start on it early because it takes a year to get through the process of getting clearance.”