You would have to live in monkish isolation to have missed the most recent Washington sex scandal involving the ex-CIA director David Petraeus and his biographer, PaulaBroadwell. This is far from Washington’s greatest infidelity scandal, nor is it it’s most consequential. What makes it exceptional is that the main actor, General Petraeus, resigned from his CIA directorship right at the outbreak of its becoming public, rather than waiting for the situation to evolve, the contours of the crisis to develop and at least make an attempt to ride the waves of public opinion to potential salvation. As a military officer, he is familiar with adversity and can certainly face the challenges of battle, be they military, political or personal. Yet his first act at the outbreak of the news was one of immediate retreat, if not capitulation. The challenge now is to understand why, and that is the reason this story has “legs” and is capturing the attention of the chattering class.
General Petraeus has what we would call “asymmetrical knowledge” of the situation. Only he, and perhaps Ms. Broadwell, know the extent and the depth of their relationship, what secrets were shared be they sensitive to national security or not, and ultimately how compromised his judgement had been as CIA Director or would have been had he attempted to continue in that role. One has to believe that given the rapidity of his departure that the details he shared with Ms. Broadwell were inappropriate and the access she obtained to his records and, indeed, his mind, likely breached the firewall that would have existed even between a subject and his biographer. Like a good field commander, he laid out the projected evolution of the battle and concluded that he could not win. When you cannot win, it is best to conserve your assets and withdraw. General Petraeus chose to remove himself from the field, perhaps to fight another day.
When you serve the President of the United States in a capacity as sensitive as that of the CIA Director, you cannot afford to be distracted. Nor can you leave yourself open to even the slightest chance of blackmail or influence that may cause you to withhold, distort or colour the advice you provide on the most sensitive issues of national security. Even more importantly, you must be perceived by those around you as being beyond reproach and of unassailable sound judgement. Even if Petraeus had survived this crisis, he would never have been held in the same esteem by those who he led within the CIA and those in government who he advised.
The great irony is that many presidents have been far more deeply compromised by their dalliances while in power than those who advised them. FDR and Ike were known to have had affairs with those who served in their inner circle. Kennedy had too many women in his life to count, and even shared Judith Exner with Sam Giancana, one of the most noted Chicago mobsters of the era. Clinton lost most of his second term to the Monica Lewinski scandal and his impeachment by the House of Representatives. How distracted were these men by love and sex, even while they were dealing with the most critical issues of the day? FDR fought WWII, Eisenhower the Cold War, Kennedy had the Cuban Missile Crisis and Clinton, well, had Newt Gingrich and Kosovo. The truth is that we will never really know if these men were able to shut out their personal dalliancesand focus purely on the challenges at hand or if there was always part of their brains that focused on fantasy. What these presidents counted on, however, was that their inner circle of advisers was purely focused on them. Petraeus understood the unfairness of power; that the president is allowed to have distractions and flaws and is accountable to the public for them, but Petraeus, as a member of the inner circle was not permitted the same. Petraeus’ understanding of the needs of those in power coupled with his own demands on his previous military and CIA inner circles made it clear in his mind that he had to go.
There are other players being drawn into this sensual circle whose names are just becoming known. Jill Kelley, a friend of the Petraeus family has apparently exchanged salacious e-mails with General John Allen, the commander of coalition troops in Afghanistan and the incoming commander of NATO forces in Europe. Ms. Kelley triggered the public unraveling of this private party when she complained to the FBI that Ms. Broadwell had sent her threatening e-mails. Now the U.S. Congress’ Intelligence Oversight Committee wants to know why it was not told that the CIA Director was under investigation, yet certain members of the Republican leadership had been tipped off about it before the presidential election. Once again, there is a small inner circle within government who likely had knowledge of the situation, notably within the FBI, and it will take weeks or months to determine if they acted properly under the laws of government accountability.
The ultimate cost of this latest sex scandal is the distraction of the political classes from far more important issues; the fiscal cliff, civil war in Syria, a nuclear Iran, an aggressive China in southeast Asia, an unstable Pakistan and the unwinding of the Afghan and Iraqi deployments. Our collective obsession with the private lives of public people is enabling our public officials to focus on these trivial items rather than on issues that truly shape the world we live in. Petraeus may have left his post but the irony of his departure is that the intelligence he used to collect and share with key government players is going to get less attention in the short term than what he used to do in his private life. This diversion is the greatest intelligence failure of the whole episode.