PETER FARMER: DANGEROUS GAME….THE ISE AND FALL OF PETRAEUS
“Keep your indiscretions a hundred miles from the flagpole” ~ military aphorism
On November 9th, David H. Petraeus, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), announced his resignation subsequent to the disclosure that he had carried on a lengthy extra-marital affair with author and U.S. Army Reserve officer Paula Broadwell. Although Petraeus claims to have ended the affair in August 2012, it erupted into a public scandal when incriminating e-mails were made public following an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Broadwell, who mistook Petreaus family friend Jill Kelley as a romantic rival, had written a series of threatening e-mails to Kelley, warning her to stay away from Petraeus. Kelley forwarded the messages to the FBI.
While events are still unfolding, as of 14 November, it has come to light that Broadwell was given access to highly-sensitive classified information by Petraeus, and that some of it was found in her possession. The curtain appears set to fall on one of the most-celebrated military and public service careers of the last quarter century.
David Petraeus is not the first powerful and influential man to have an ill-advised affair, nor will he be the last. This article will not concern itself with those matters within the Petraeus family that should rightly remain private; however, because of Petraeus’ former position as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (DCI) – it is imperative that his actions be examined in the light of national security. There is no way to sugarcoat it: Petraeus is guilty of extremely poor judgment, perhaps even criminal negligence. To some, that verdict may seem unduly harsh, but there are sound reasons for it.
Prior to commissioning, all military officers are subject to a strict and very thorough background investigation. Once on duty, an officer is subject to numerous regulations and directives governing his behavior, access to classified information, and when/how he may communicate about it. These measures become progressively more draconian as an officer rises in rank and takes on ever-more-sensitive duties and has access to high-level classified information. There is nothing at present to suggest that Petraeus violated security protocols during his long career as an army officer. However, when Petraeus moved over to the CIA as Director, the stakes were raised considerably. The DCI must be an individual of unimpeachable character and moral rectitude – and Petraeus failed to meet that standard.
Even the lowest-ranking intelligence officer must be alert to the possibly of being compromised via a personal relationship, especially a romantic liaison. Upon being approached in such a manner, that officer must ask himself if he is being targeted by a foreign intelligence operative or other agent. The so-called “honey trap” – using sexual allure to ensnare a targeted operative – is one of the oldest and most-effective techniques known to espionage. Paranoia is not normally a desirable quality in day-to-day relations between human beings, but it is imperative in a high-level intelligence operative who wishes to survive and thrive in a business where knowing who to trust can make the difference between success and failure and sometimes life and death.
As the most-senior member of the CIA, Petraeus should have been more suspicious of Broadwell’s interest. It boggles the mind that he, a recently-retired four-star general and holder of a Ph.D. in international relations, would be so blind to the vulnerability of his position. The fact that Paula Broadwell was a fellow army officer should have been immaterial; having such a background would be perfect cover for an operative working to penetrate the CIA or compromise Petraeus himself. A higher standard of behavior must be demanded of a man in his position. Sex does indeed make men crazy, it appears.
Looking at the larger picture, it is perhaps unsurprising that General Petraeus has come to such an inglorious end. Despite his enviable record and accomplishments, he was guilty of the elemental sin of hubris, and also of poor judgment in his choice of colleagues. Colloquially speaking, if one lies down with dogs, one should expect to get up with fleas… and that is precisely what has happened.
Since his days at West Point, Petraeus has been known as a soldier in a hurry, a man with “stars in his future.” Since rocketing to fame as George W. Bush’s point man in Iraq, Petraeus has managed to successfully walk the tightrope between careerism and being a “soldier’s soldier.” An intensely ambitious man, Petraeus has never shied away from publicity; nor has he ever feared taking risks. After gaining renown as the architect of Bush’s “surge” strategy in Iraq, Petraeus was ideally-positioned for an eventual entry into politics if he so chose. However, in electing to serve Obama, he may have finally ventured too close to the flame and gotten burned.
Much-celebrated in certain military and national security circles for driving the new Army/Marine Corps counter-insurgency (COIN) doctrine, Petraeus’ theories have not held up nearly as well in combat as in the briefing room; critics charge that his COIN program and the restrictive rules of engagement under which our forces fight is getting good men killed to no purpose. Strategically, his COIN doctrine has proven to be a costly and bloody failure. Critics have also charged Petraeus of “going native” vis-à-vis Islam, as when he seemed more concerned about the “Holy Koran” and handling it with gloves, than he did about freedom of speech or the Bibles his Afghanistan command ordered burned.
Having left the army in 2011, Petraeus is off the hook for that now, but serving as DCI hasn’t sheltered him from politics – or the “tender mercies” of his bosses. Having squeezed everything useful from him, Obama and company now feel no compunction about throwing him to the wolves. Petraeus sealed his fate when he declined to provide political cover for his bosses over the Benghazi attacks that claimed four U.S. lives, and by denying CIA culpability in the failure to send military/agency assets to rescue the beleaguered embassy. Petraeus’ indiscretion was known within the administration well-before the election, but it was held in reserve by his adversaries as a trump card to play against him when the time was right. Late in the game, Petraeus modified his position in an attempt to keep his job, but by then, he was already being measured for the drop.
There are many unanswered questions about the scandal. Was Petraeus’ affair with Paula Broadwell simply a matter of chance, or was he the victim of a carefully-orchestrated takedown by party or parties unknown? Did the White House set up Petraeus as a way of neutralizing a would-be political opponent? Is Petraeus being punished for failing to toe the administration line on Benghazi? Does Broadwell work for a foreign government or interest?
Why did General Petraeus decide to serve under Obama in the first place? That is the question that perplexes this writer. There has been no president/commander in chief in our nation’s history as hostile to the traditions and values of the military as Obama, nor has there been a leader as lawless and lacking in honor – yet Petraeus seemed to believe that he could serve such a man without getting dirt on his hands eventually. Time has proven this hope to be a vain one. Perhaps he hoped that, by remaining on duty, he could somehow protect his men and spare them some of the hardships to come. There may be other reasons as yet unknown. Only Petraeus himself knows the answers to these questions.
As unfortunate as this affair has proven to be for Petraeus and his family personally, the real tragedy lies in the fact that whatever credibility and moral authority David Petraeus once possessed as a critic of Obama is severely-damaged if not destroyed. If he is called before Congress to testify about the events in Benghazi, he will do from a position of political and personal weakness – which is precisely the outcome wished for by the White House and its allies. As for Obama and his advisors, their neo-Stalinist purge of the military continues apace as they eliminate ideological and political enemies one-by-one, and replace them with more-compliant individuals.
In retirement, Petraeus now joins former colleague Stanley McChrystal, another general fallen from official grace. Having been stabbed in the back by their boss, perhaps they will now become the critics of Obama the republic needs them to be.
Should these men wish to redeem themselves, they are now ideally-positioned to do so as private citizens free to speak their minds about the danger to the republic posed by Obama and his supporters. Here’s hoping that both men seize the opportunity to do so in as public and forthright a manner as possible.
Copyright 2012 Peter Farmer
Peter Farmer is a historian and commentator on national security, geopolitics and public policy issues. He has done original research on wartime resistance movements in WWII Europe, and has delivered seminars on such subjects as political violence and terrorism, the evolution of conflict, combat medicine, and related subjects. Mr. Farmer is also a scientist and a medic.
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