David Petraeus’s acceptance of a plea bargain–he pled guilty to the unauthorized sharing of classified information in return for paying a fine of $40,000 and serving two year of probation–has been met both with unseemly Schadenfreude by some who delight in seeing an America hero revealed to have flaws as well as criticism from others who believe that he got off too lightly.
It’s certainly true that others have faced stiffer sentences for revealing classified information. As Eli Lake notes: “John Kiriakou, a former CIA employee who pleaded guilty to disclosing the identity of an undercover officer, was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison — even though the employee’s identity was never made public. Stephen Kim, a federal contractor, went to prison for a year after leaking secrets about North Korea to a Fox News reporter. Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA officer, is facing a longer prison term for leaking secrets to a New York Times reporter.”
But it’s also the case that other leaks have not been punished at all. Leaks of classified information to journalists or authors are a routine occurrence in Washington. As Lake notes, “last summer a federal judge ordered the Barack Obama administration to release a classified memo on the legal justification for its drone attacks because officials had spoken publicly about its contents so often it was no longer a secret.”
This is hardly the only secret that the Obama administration didn’t keep–most of the highly classified details of the operation to kill Osama bin Laden were immediately leaked, much to the consternation of Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The administration even opened its doors to a film-maker researching a film that ultimately became Zero Dark Thirty.
Few senior officials are ever prosecuted for mishandling classified information, even though such breaches are commonplace–given the level of over-classification in Washington, simply mentioning where the CIA training facility known as The Farm is located (near Williamsburg, Virginia) is technically a crime even though that information is freely available to anyone who has access to Google. There is little logic to the way that secrecy laws are enforced. Almost anyone in a position of authority can be prosecuted if prosecutors are so inclined.
It is ironic that the Petraeus plea bargain was concluded at virtually the same time that news emerged that Hillary Clinton had used a private, unsecure email address for all of her emailing as secretary of state. So, it turns out, had Colin Powell. They of course claim they never revealed anything secret in their emails, but what, I wonder, would the FBI find if it devoted considerable man hours to reading all of their emails? It is hard to believe that not a single email over the course of years contained any “sensitive” or “secret” information (which is usually information which is also available in the New York Times) even if by some miracle they managed to avoid alluding to “top secret” or “secure compartmented” information.
A breach of security far more egregious than Petraesus’s was committed by one of his predecessors as CIA director, John Deutch, who routinely kept classified material on unclassified computers. A CIA investigation subsequently revealed, that all of these computers “were connected to or contained modems that allowed external connectivity to computer networks such as the Internet. Such computers are vulnerable to attacks by unauthorized persons. CIA personnel retrieved [classified] information from Deutch’s unclassified computers and magnetic media related to covert action, Top Secret communications intelligence and the National Reconnaissance Program budget.” And yet what penalty did Deutch suffer? The Justice Department under Janet Reno declined to prosecute him, and President Clinton issued him a pardon to make sure not that no future prosecutor could ever come after him.
By comparison with what Clinton or Deutch did, Petraeus’s offense is pretty minor. As his plea bargain reveals, he shared with his biographer (and mistress) Paula Broadwell, who had a security clearance of her own, some of the “black books” that he used to keep notes as the top commander in Afghanistan. The black books, according to the plea bargain, “contained national defense information, including Top Secret/SCI and code word information,” yet none of the classified information ever wound up in Broadwell’s book, or anywhere else. Petraeus was also accused of lying to FBI agents who asked him whether he had provided classified information to his biographer, although it’s quite possible he simply forgot about this very mundane matter: It’s not as if he was trying to leak any secrets to Broadwell; he merely provided her with his records so she could check dates and other details.
It is not at all unusual, by the way, for senior military officers to keep such “black books” upon retirement. A friend in the military writes, “They have pursued him for a charge of which virtually every senior officer in the US military has been guilty. EVERY senior officer has such notebooks (we are a notetaking military, as you know) and EVERY senior officer carries those notebooks around with them. And ALMOST EVERY senior officer I have encountered keeps them after retirement.” Indeed, such records form the basis on which senior officers can subsequently write their memoirs.
In short, the incident over which Petraeus has pleaded guilty is a minor one, discovered in the course of a fishing expedition by the FBI, whose agents searched his house. There is no evidence of any harm to national security. This is not remotely comparable to the case of malicious leakers such as Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. It is not even, as I have argued, comparable to the breaches committed by John Deutch. If Deutch could get a presidential pardon, why not Petraeus, who has dedicated most of his life to serving and defending our country?