Yesterday, Andrea Mitchell, the highly respected NBC News reporter, announced on MSNBC the news that CIA director David Petraeus had given President Obama a letter of resignation, and that the President had accepted it. In his letter, Petraeus admitted to, and took full responsibility for, an extra-marital affair.

David Petraeus has to be regarded as one of the most remarkable military men of our generation. He’s an exceptionally bright, well educated man, with a PhD from Princeton in International Relations.  He was head of all coalition forces in Iraq, and is credited as one of the main architects of COIN, the counter-insurgency strategy that finally made it possibly for US troops to withdraw peacefully from Iraq. He personally re-wrote the Army field manual to reflect the COIN doctrine. His later attempts to implement COIN in Afghanistan came too late to be terribly successful, but certainly represent a strategy that might have worked, given enough time and resources in a war the nation is sick of. His distinguished military service having ended, he then became the director of Central Intelligence. His wife, Holly, also had a stellar academic record, and currently works as assistant director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  Her job involves outreach with military families, in CFPB crackdowns on abusive lending and illegal foreclosures by banks, who are barred by law from foreclosing on the homes of active-duty military personnel, but who, until CFPB showed up, were doing it anyway.  In that capacity, she has worked closely with Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, and is part of their work with military families.  The Petraeus’s also have a son, Stephen, an MIT graduate, commissioned as an infantry officer, and currently deployed in Afghanistan.

Because Petraeus is head of Central Intelligence, and because the CIA provided security for the US mission in Benghazi Libya, and because the CIA also was the clearing house for all intelligence for the Benghazi attack, his resignation, and the stated reason for it, has been regarded by my conservative friends with some skepticism. He’s scheduled to testify before the relevant Senate committee next week; this resignation seems suspiciously timed.  I would like to suggest that those suspicions, and that skepticism, are unfounded.

There has to be, absolutely has to be, a zero tolerance policy for adultery in the CIA.  Some friends have wondered why the CIA has less tolerance for adultery than, say, the Clinton White House.  It’s because it’s the CIA; they have spies, and spies can always turn, can always become double agents. We’ve all read our John LeCarre, haven’t we? Adultery opens up nasty possibilities for blackmail. And you can’t have, in the same agency, a double standard–field agents can’t commit adultery, but their handlers and analysts can? Not workable.

But in the sad case of David Petraeus, the national security implications of his affair become clear.  He didn’t self-report the affair, he was caught by the FBI. His affair was with his biographer, Army reservist Paula Broadwell, and was discovered when the FBI monitored his email communications with her.  Ordinarily, the FBI does not investigate the CIA; they don’t intervene unless requested to by someone in CIA counter-intelligence.  The FBI was alerted to the possibility that Broadwell had access to Petraeus’ private email account.  In other words, the Petraeus/Broadwell relationship was sufficiently public that it alerted CIA counter-intel, who passed their information in turn over to the FBI.

It’s possible that more information will come out over time.  But if Petraeus’ biographer/ lover somehow got access to his computer, and its classified files, that’s obviously a serious security breach and one that has to be dealt with immediately.  I have not read anything to suggest that national security was in fact compromised. But obviously it could have been.  So if the timing seemed suspicious, it was also driven by necessity–you don’t worry about appearances when national security may be at risk.

The whole thing is horrible to contemplate.  David Petraeus is a genuine American hero, one of the finest soldiers in our history.  His wife is a deeply respected and admired public servant.  I can’t imagine that General Petraeus would ever have betrayed his country.  The very possibility beggars the imagination.  But he was, apparently, indiscreet. And in that position, at that level, that kind of indiscretion cannot be tolerated. At all, ever.

The irony here is the word ‘betray,’ the way Petraeus rhymes with ‘betray us.’  And that accident of harmony is central to one of the biggest stories of the General’s career.  In 2007, Petraeus, then a four-star general in charge of all coalition forces in Iraq, reported to Congress regarding a surge of US troops needed for fighting in Iraq.  That surge, of course, became integral to Petraeus’ counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq.  Here’s a  more detailed report., a liberal advocacy group to which I belong, published a full page ad in the New York Times, asking “will Petraeus betray us?”  The suggestion was that Petraeus’ report to Congress might be dishonest, might not reflect American failures on the ground, might just be an argument for more troops in a war we wanted to be over.  I thought that the Petraeus/betray us ad was a terrible misstep, and that the headline, with its suggestion of nothing less than treason, was contemptible, and I said so, repeatedly, in MoveOn public forums. But now, here we are again.  Wondering if Petraeus really did betray us.  Sure that he didn’t, but with that certainty shaded by doubt.

But it’s not about Benghazi.  And I know my conservative friends think that Benghazi is a terrible scandal that the liberal media refuses to take seriously, that the very fact that Benghazi wasn’t a major issue in the Presidential campaign just concluded is convincing evidence of liberal media bias.  I don’t buy it.  I think the mainstream media doesn’t take Benghazi seriously is because there’s just not a story there.

Benghazi is not about a cover-up, or a weak President soft on terror. Benghazi is about a chaotic situation in which conclusions had to be reached and information disseminated based on contradictory and confusing intelligence. Did Jay Carney and Susan Rice get it wrong initially?  Indeed they did, with a voracious press demanding answers to which they could only reply with possibilities. Was the security adequate in the Benghazi compound?  Obviously no, but the Libyans had forty plus guards for an ambassador and three staff–it certainly seemed adequate at the time.  Did the CIA have intel on a possible attack?  Yes, piles of intel, regarding hundreds of attacks–CIA analysts have probably the hardest job on the planet.  Should CIA reinforcements have gotten there sooner?  Probably, though hindsight is always clearer than real time obscurity.  Did the President wait too long to scramble Special Forces reinforcements?  Probably, though they got there ninety minutes after the attack, and would have been too late if they’d gotten there in thirty minutes.  What haunts me about Benghazi is this: Ambassador Stevens had a safe room in that compound, and hid there initially.  He was forced out by smoke bombs.  If anyone had thought to equip that safe room with an oxygen mask. . . . If anyone had thought to put locks on cockpit doors of commercial airliners sometime prior to September, 2001 . . .

What I am certain of, though, is that David Petraeus would not have fallen on his sword for the President over Benghazi.  He would not have tarnished a spotless record, and opened himself up to imputations of compromising national security, over something as comparatively unimportant as Benghazi.

David Petraeus made a terrible personal mistake.  We will never know what failure of integrity led him to do something that stupid and damaging.  His legacy needs to be found in the COIN field handbook he authored, in the alliances with Sunni sheiks he formed, in the lifetime of distinguished and courageous service he dedicated to his country.  David Petraeus is a patriot, a scholar, and a hero.  He’s also a fool, led to idiocy by lust.  Unpack that conundrum, and unlock the human heart.


Leave a Reply