The U.S. Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation have recommended felony charges against David Petraeus for giving classified information to his biographer and mistress, Paula Broadwell. While not a crime in itself (because Petraeus was retired from the military at the time the scandal broke), the affair put Petraeus, then director of the Central Intelligence Agency, at significant risk of blackmail. He resigned from the CIA in 2012 shortly after the relationship became public.
The scandal came to light after Broadwell abused her proximity to Petraeus, threatening to use her CIA connections to make a perceived sexual rival, Jill Kelley, “go away” (mafia style); this spurred an FBI investigation. Federal investigators then stumbled upon classified documents in Broadwell’s possession, allegedly provided by her Petraeus, with whom they discovered she was having an affair. According to the New York Times, Broadwell may have even gained access to her lover’s government email account during this period. Given his position at the head of U.S. intelligence operations, the magnitude of such a breach, if confirmed, would be immense.
Yet U.S. lawmakers tasked with overseeing intelligence failed to even question Petraeus about his misconduct. Shortly after the scandal broke, Petraeus was summoned to testify before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, but lawmakers limited their questioning to the 2012 attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. And over the course of this inquiry, they did not even ask how Broadwell gained access to highly-sensitive details about the Benghazi attacks (to include confirming the location of CIA blacksites), which she mentioned in a speech at the University of Denver just before the affair came to light.
Instead, the vice-chairwoman of the Senate’s Intelligence Committee, Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., urged the White House last week not to press any charges, claiming the general “made a mistake [and] has suffered enough” because of it.
But it is not clear how, or even if, he has suffered.
He continues to receive a military pension of around $200,000 per year, which he is allowed to keep because the affair with Broadwell allegedly began after he retired (a claim which was never meaningfully investigated; it has been clearly established that they were spending lots of time together prior).
In 2013 the City University of New York offered Petraeus more than $200,000 to teach a single seminar. The salary was later dropped to $1 following a widespread public outrage, but he accepted a lucrative and prestigious fellowship with the Harvard Kennedy School in its stead. He is widely sought after for public speaking engagements at $100,000 to $150,000 per appearance.
On top if all this, Petraeus was later appointed the senior vice president for the Royal United Services Institute. He is also the Chairman of the KKR Global Institute, a private-equity firm, whose compensation likely brings his income well into the seven-digit range.
In short, Petraeus has been richly rewarded, not punished.
Even his longsuffering wife, Holly, has stoically stood by him. It deserves noting that she is impressive in her own right, heading the Office of Servicemember Affairs at the U.S. Consumer Finance and Protection Bureau (previously the director of the Better Business Bureau’s Military Line). She is the daughter of William A. Knowlton, who (perhaps too coincidentally) happened to be the Superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point while Petraeus was attending–a connection which surely helped him rise faster and higher than he otherwise would have. But more on his “people-climbing” in a minute…
The government’s handling of L’affaire Petraeus is in stark contrast to other cases involving leaks of classified information. The Obama White House has prosecuted more whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined.
Army Private Bradley Manning remains confined to 35 years in prison for leaking government abuses to Wikileaks. His civilian accomplice, Julian Assange, remains stranded at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, suffering severe health problems as a result of his confinement. But of course, he faces extradition to, and indefinite detention in, the United States if he leaves the premises. In a similar fashion, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden remains a de facto prisoner in Russia for exposing the illegal and ineffective U.S. bulk surveillance program.
Meanwhile, former CIA agent John Kiriakou is serving three years in prison for exposing the excesses of agency’s torture protocols, thus far the only CIA agent charged with any crime related to the program. Another CIA agent, Jeffery Sterling, will likely face “dozens of years” in prison for exposing the Bush Administration’s duplicitous attempt to manufacture evidence of Iran’s WMD program as it prepared to launch yet another regime-change there (these intentions were foiled by the Iraq insurgency, which the military planners had not prepared for).
In contrast to these, Petraeus is no whistleblower — he cannot claim to have shared government secrets to advance the public good.
In fact, his actions cannot even be compared to those of current CIA director John Brennan or former Secretary of Defense and past CIA director Leon Panetta—both of whom allegedly sharked confidential information to the press, also without legal consequences. This is because Panetta and Brennan’s leaks were intended to move public opinion on issues critical to the Obama Administration, in the service of the White House. Right or wrong, it was a component of their public service. By contrast, Petraeus was driven by the most banal pursuits conceivable: sex, money, and adulation.
He divulged sensitive information about ongoing military and intelligence operations to bolster Broadwell’s career. She apparently considered leveraging her burgeoning profile and connections in order to run for U.S. Senate in North Carolina. Broadwell then exploited her privileged access to write a glowing biography of her lover and benefactor (aptly titled, “All-In”), along with a number of similarly cloying editorials in in the Newsweek and Boston Globe, among other outlets — likely in support of Petraeus’ own nascent political ambitions.
A Record of Failure
Petraeus rose to prominence as the architect and champion of the COIN approach to dismantling insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq—held to have the miraculous properties of dissolving extremist networks, empowering the local governments, and building trust between the military and local populations—allowing the U.S. to bring a dignified end to its otherwise indefinite or ill-fated campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Of course, the hype surrounding COIN was too good to be true—Petraeus’ signature approach was a tactic, not a strategy. However, as there was no authentic strategy for Iraq or Afghanistan, COIN became its poor-substitute–and Petraeus, America’s great hope for redeeming the wars. Capitalizing on this public sentiment, he set out to consolidate his power:
Shortly after President Obama took office, Petraeus leaked a misleading account of the new Administration’s drawdown plans (along with dire projections of the consequences of these policies) in order to pressure the new Commander-in-Chief into devoting the necessary manpower and resources to expand COIN into both theaters—effectively forcing Obama, within months of taking office, to escalate the wars he was just elected to wind-down.
In an attempt to salvage its electoral commitments in the face of this revolt, the White House adopted the goal of utilizing COIN to render Iraq and Afghanistan stable enough, for long enough, that the U.S. could drawdown its forces “victoriously” by 2011 (i.e. in the lead-up to the 2012 Presidential elections), and then scapegoat local actors, or if they were lucky, the 2016 Administration, for the inevitable collapse of their house of cards.
This disintegration was hastened by the meteoric rise of ISIS, a group incubated in the U.S.-run prison Camp Bucca. The camp was described in 2008 as an integral part of Petraeus’ COIN strategy, intended to separate the extremists from the broader population in support of the “surge.” However, by the time it closed in September of 2009, Bucca was known as a veritable “al-Qaeda school,” where ideologues and former Baathists formed an unholy alliance and were given access to tens-of-thousands of disenfranchised Sunnis to radicalize, recruit, and train for their impending campaign against Iraq’s government. Meanwhile, the so-called “Awakening” forces armed and trained by the United States to drive out the ISI began defecting to al-Baghdadi’s organization in mid-2010.
But despite the fact that violence in Iraq began was dropping dramatically prior to the Surge, and the so-called “Awakening” was falling apart prior to the drawdown, in large part due to Petraeus’ policies—the General was somehow credited with helping restore stability to Iraq, avoiding any blame for the subsequent collapse.
In his tenure as CIA director, Petraeus oversaw the disastrous CIA operation to funnel weapons and resources into the hands of rebel fighters in Syria and Libya—many of which ended up in the hands of al-Qaeda, and later, ISIS. He would also radically expand the CIA’s drone operations, which have proven enormously destabilizing for the affected countries and exacerbated the problem of terrorism across the region.
A Deeper Betrayal
Petraeus’ abysmal track record becomes glaringly obvious under scrutiny (especially with the benefit of hindsight)—but he was, and remains, insulated by a cult of personality created by deftly co-opting key politicians, military leaders, academics, and pundits—and enabled by a public which is generally uncritical of, and disengaged from, its military.
These factors allowed Petraeus to emerge as a combat Division Commander in 2003, despite having no personal experience in direct fire. He was subsequently awarded a bronze star for combat valor despite having “never pulled a trigger and killed the enemy in combat.”
He would leverage deception after deception to rise to the top of the military and intelligence communities, where his ill-conceived policies would bring catastrophe to our servicemen and women–to say nothing of those who live in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Libya, or Syria and bear the brunt of the cost for his self-serving duplicity.
Ultimately, Petraeus’ betrayal of his country’s confidence far surpasses him giving classified information to Broadwell. However, while this manipulation was certainly immoral, it was not, in most cases, illegal. But that makes it all the more important to prosecute Patraeus for the clear legal infraction he did commit. At long last, he must be held to account for something.