General Petraeus, national security, and national hypocrisy

General David Petraeus is back in the news, no longer as the mastermind of the Iraq “surge” 8 years ago and then director of our war and spying efforts, but as a potential felon (CBS News: “Former CIA Chief David Petraeus may face criminal charges,” 1/10/15). Oh, the irony: in the video there (at 1:31), Paula Broadwell says the interviews with her were motivated in part by his concern over his legacy.

I haven’t been a very big fan of Petraeus for a while. On 11/19/12, I posted this in “Justice and other themes”:

Online comment on Susan Estrich, “Gen. Petraeus loses big time … but so does the nation,” 11/15/12:

As befits a friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Susan Estrich doesn’t want to see a connection between personal behavior and national reputation. Petraeus has made the US and the CIA look bad, and may or not have revealed intelligence secrets to unauthorized people. It’s nice he’s a gentleman, but I doubt that is on the job description for general or CIA director. Neither is being a playboy a great background for elective office, as he could have intuited from the fall of president Nicholas Sarkozy of France and president Silvio Berlusconi of Italy. These references are not random, since Petraeus was rumored to be planning to run for US president.

You’d think I’d admire David Petraeus, with his PhD from Princeton, as I do Joe Sestak (PhD Harvard) and Tom Wolf (PhD MIT).

But something about him made me nervous. Maybe it was his rumored political ambitions. I do not think currently (as opposed to the eras of Washington and Eisenhower) that a general should run for president. Our society is already too close to loss of civilian control, as shown for example by the futile efforts of Congress to rein in the CIA and NSA. At the time Petraeus was in charge of Central Command, US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the CIA, it almost seemed the generals were in charge of our foreign policy. Petraeus always denied he would run for office, but a lot of people, including me, didn’t really believe him. I guess we do now, especially if he goes to jail.

Patraeus used to be easy to admire. He talked well about reducing civilian casualties, and he had an operations plan that recognized the importance of Iraqis and Afghans in the future of their own countries. That was a big step forward over the Bush administration’s tacit belief that people all over the Middle East were just longing to be more like us. But whatever the merits of the Petraeus approach, it was a hopeless job.

So now the General is in trouble again: “F.B.I. and Justice Dept. Said to Seek Charges for Petraeus” by Michael Schmidt and Matt Apuzzo, The New York Times, 1/9/15. Short version:

F.B.I. agents discovered classified documents on her computer after Mr. Petraeus resigned from the C.I.A. in 2012 when the affair became public.

“She” is his biographer Paula Broadwell. The affair is not the issue here, and probably whatever documents he gave her didn’t really threaten national security, and probably she was more discreet about them than she was in sending anonymous emails that a presumed rival perceived as threatening, thus precipitating the whole investigation.

Still, on the negative side, she wasn’t doing her own writing about Petraeus; see Vernon Loeb, “Petraeus ghostwriter ‘clueless’ to affair,” Washington Post, 11/12/12.

At the time of the scandal, Doug Muder in “Shadows Cast By the Petraeus Scandal,” The Weekly Sift, 11/19/12, did exhaustive reading to come up with the even more upsetting issues:

The surveillance state is eating its own. In the post-privacy era of the Internet and the Patriot Act, the FBI has become the Eye of Sauron: Once its attention has been drawn to you, it will soon know your secrets and the secrets of all your associates, whether or not anyone has committed a crime.

Glenn Greenwald lays out just how much investigation resulted from just how little probable cause: A friend of an FBI agent gets some mildly disturbing anonymous emails, and before you know it (and apparently without needing any warrants), the FBI is reading personal messages of the head of the CIA and his successor four-star general in Afghanistan….

And, the Weekly Sift article concludes:

And there is a hypocrisy angle. Petraeus was a proponent of the Pentagon’s “spiritual fitness” push, which (while carefully framed as non-religious or non-sectarian in theory) in practice means Christian evangelism in the military….

The Army’s spiritual fitness test and Under Orders both strongly imply that the non-religious can’t be a good soldiers or reliable team members of any sort.

Chris Rodda may be a bit too gleeful in Petraeus’ downfall, but expresses a sentiment that I … can’t help but share: “Hey, General Petraeus, how’s that spiritual fitness stuff working out for you?”

Now the US government is caught up in trying to avoid the same hypocrisy trap of saying one thing and doing another. The Times article indicates that:

Mr. Holder was expected to decide by the end of last year [2014] whether to bring charges against Mr. Petraeus, but he has not indicated how he plans to proceed. The delay has frustrated some Justice Department and F.B.I. officials and investigators who have questioned whether Mr. Petraeus has received special treatment at a time Mr. Holder has led a crackdown on government officials who reveal secrets to journalists….

As is often commented, the Holder Department of Justice has been extraordinarily diligent in pursuing journalists and their purported sources for leaks or ostensibly confidential information of a type the government doesn’t want in circulation. See, for example, “Will James Risen Be Jailed? In Press Freedom Fight, NYT Reporter Tells Court He Won’t Name Source,” Democracy Now!, 1/7/15. Risen is quoted there as noting:

By launching criminal investigations of stories that are outside the mainstream coverage, they are trying to, in effect, build a pathway on which journalism can be conducted: Stay on the interstate highway of conventional wisdom with your journalism, and you will have no problems; try to get off and challenge basic assumptions, and you will face punishment. Journalists have no choice but to fight back, because if they don’t, they will become irrelevant….

and also:

Without aggressive investigative reporting, we can’t really have a democracy, because the only real oversight for the government is an independent and aggressive press. And I think that’s what the government really fears more than anything else, is an aggressive investigative reporting in which we shine a light on what’s going on inside the government. And we can’t do that without maintaining the confidentiality of sources….

So now, it seems, the Department of Justice needs to go after Petraeus so that it won’t seem abusive in going after the supposed perpetrators of other leaks of allegedly confidential information.

The Wikipedia article on John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer currently serving 30 months in prison for giving classified information to the media, has a “poetic justice” themed quote from Petraeus:

General David Petraeus, CIA director, made a statement to CIA employees: “This case yielded the first IIPA successful prosecution in 27 years, and it marks an important victory for our Agency, for our Intelligence Community, and for our country. Oaths do matter, and there are indeed consequences for those who believe they are above the laws”. [See the full statement here.]

But here’s the difference: Petraeus gave confidential information to his biographer (or more accurately, it seems: compiler of notes), if he did, in order to impress her personally and/or enhance his “legacy” (the law of unintended consequences). And Kiriakou gave information, if he did, to a reporter writing about policy. Those concerned over human rights abuses can’t help but be sympathetic to him overall, because “He is notable as the first U.S. government official to confirm in December 2007 the use of waterboarding of al-Qaeda prisoners as an interrogation technique, which he described as torture” (Wikipedia).

Petraeus’s defense seems to be that Broadwell didn’t reveal any secret information. Well, that didn’t work for Kiriakou, who “admitted violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act by e-mailing the name of a covert C.I.A. officer to a freelance reporter, who did not publish it” (Scott Shane, New York Times, 1/5/13).

The overall problem seems to me that our society has traditionally valued truthfulness, openness, courage, and self-sacrifice for the sake of principle… and now seems to criminalize those very traits.

On the hypocrisy theme, having just seen “The Imitation Game,” whose main character Alan Turing commits suicide while under a hormonal “treatment” for his sexual orientation, I also can’t help commenting that many careers, in government and elsewhere, have been derailed by charges of homosexuality, along with the supposed ease of blackmail. This cartoon turns it around aptly in the Petraeus case:

Petraeus : serving openly


About politicswestchesterview

Nathaniel regards himself as a progressive Democrat who sees a serious need to involve more Americans in the political process if we are to rise to Ben Franklin's challenge "A republic, madam, if you can keep it," after a passerby asked him what form of government the founders had chosen. This blog gives my views and background information on the local, state, and national political scenes. My career in higher education was mainly in the areas of international studies, foreign languages, and student advising, most recently at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, from which I retired in 2006. I have lived in West Chester since 1986.
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