Commentary Magazine


Petraeus Needn’t Have Resigned

It’s a good thing that current political standards for handling adultery were not in place during World War II. Otherwise Dwight Eisenhower, who was notoriously close with his attractive English chauffeur, Kay Summersby, would never have remained as supreme allied commander, much less been elected to the presidency. These days, by contrast, sexual misconduct is one of the few sins that can bring down a senior military officer or civilian officeholder, such as David Petraeus.  

We do not, of course, have a consistent standard of disqualifying adulterers. But unless you are as brazen and charming as Bill Clinton, you are likely to be toast. Whether this makes sense is another question. Given how many of our greatest leaders, from Alexander Hamilton to Franklin Roosevelt, have been guilty of sexual impropriety, it is hard to imagine how American history might have turned out if today’s Puritanical standards had been enforced in the past.

Certainly it makes sense to hold officers and officials responsible for other misconduct arising out of a sexual situation, whether it’s committing perjury or creating a hostile workplace environment. But in the case of Petraeus, at least to judge by what has come out so far, there is no sign that he did anything wrong beyond violating his marriage vows.

If newspaper reports are to be believed, the FBI only became involved when his biographer, Paula Broadwell, with whom he had an extramarital relationship, sent anonymous harassing emails to a Tampa socialite named Jill Kelley, who, along with her husband, was friends with Petraeus and his wife. The case was then investigated by an FBI agent who was apparently a friend of Kelley’s; certainly it is hard to imagine the FBI getting involved in a random case of cyber-harassment. In the course of their investigation, the FBI found out that Broadwell had sent the messages and that she and Petraeus were involved in a relationship. The FBI seems to have investigated further to see if there was a breach of national security, but, based on what has come out so far, there was none. Yet this did not stop the agents from notifying their superiors about Petraeus’s private affairs.

There is not even a credible allegation in the public domain that Petraeus shared classified information with Broadwell although, given the way that the government overclassifies even routine information, that is hard to avoid in normal interactions, much less amorous ones, involving someone as privy to as many secrets as the director of central intelligence. (To take but one ridiculous example of many: the existence of Delta Force, the nation’s elite counter-terrorist unit, is officially secret. You can read all about Delta’s exploits in numerous books and articles, but if a government official mentions that Delta exists he is technically breaking the law.)

No charges have been lodged against Petraeus, nor are there likely to be. He cannot even be accused of violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice by committing adultery since he was apparently already retired from the military when he had his relationship with Broadwell. Adultery is not against the law for a CIA director or a CIA employee, although intelligence operatives are supposed to disclose all of their relationships so as to avoid the possibility of blackmail. Even in the military, charges of adultery are seldom prosecuted unless the relations occurred with a subordinate to the detriment of the general command climate or there was some other evidence of wrongdoing. Thus Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, an army officer, is currently on trial at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, because his former mistress accused him of forcible sodomy and other crimes; it is doubtful if he would ever have been prosecuted if their relationship had ended amicably.

A similar standard is followed in corporate America, where a number of high-level executives, most recently Lockheed Martin President Christopher Kubasik, have been fired for inappropriate relationships with subordinates. But Broadwell never worked for Petraeus. He certainly made a mistake in having a relationship with her (not least because of her bizarre conduct with Kelley), and he forthrightly admitted as much in resigning, but it is far from clear that it should have been a firing offense.

Petraeus might very well have survived in office if he had decided to brazen it out. Instead, he apparently chose to fall on his sword, samurai-style, because he thought he had disgraced himself and his family. That speaks well to his standard of honor, but our government will suffer if we lose the services of such extraordinary public servants over such personal peccadilloes.

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