A bad ending for Gen. Petraeus

David Petraeus’ much-admired national security career meets an undignified end.

November 12, 2012 

A human failing in the form of an extramarital affair does not erase Gen. David Petraeus’ 37-year Army career, one marked by his leading the way in counter-insurgency and then commanding forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then he took over last year as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

In light of Petraeus’ stunning resignation, an investigation now is under way involving security issues. Committees of Congress will probe how the matter has been handled, as they should. There are many questions that arise in an episode this strange and this consequential for a key figure in the country’s defense leadership.

The woman on whom attention is focused is a Petraeus biographer, Paula Broadwell, an Army reserve lieutenant colonel and West Point graduate, who happens to live in Charlotte with her family. Reports say it was Broadwell’s emails to another woman, a friend of the Petraeus family, that caused the FBI to begin looking at the situation.

The bureau allegedly heard from the woman that Broadwell’s emails were harassing her. Petraeus resigned after being confronted about his relationship with Broadwell.

Proper example

There doesn’t seem to be any evidence thus far that Petraeus was compromised, blackmailed, for instance. But the possibility of that, for people in sensitive positions who make bad personal decisions, exists, and trying to manipulate powerful people by using personal indiscretions against them dates to the beginning of this republic and likely goes back to ancient Greece.

The retired general, who was interviewed extensively by Broadwell while he was in the military, reportedly began the affair after he had retired to head the CIA. He would have an even more serious problem if the affair had begun while he was in uniform. He would then fall under the jurisdiction of the uncompromising military justice system.

Petraeus has been an extraordinary leader during some difficult wars over which the country was sharply divided politically. When he entered the picture in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was praised as the star of the general officers of his generation, and he moved from one tough assignment to another.

But given his CIA position and the example of honorable conduct he was duty bound to set, he acted properly in submitting his resignation.

What’s coming

A complicating issue is the parallel congressional investigation into the murder of four Americans in the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate and a CIA station in Benghazi, Libya. Petraeus surely would have been called to testify if he had not resigned, and there is strong sentiment among some members of Congress to elicit his testimony regardless.

The issues have involved why protection for the U.S. installations turned out to be inadequate, what was known about the nature of the attack and when it became known. The timing of the CIA director’s resignation now becomes another element that lawmakers will scrutinize.

All of the communications technology and the ability of even amateurs to gain access to sensitive information should discourage anyone, particularly anyone in a high government office, from engaging in questionable personal behavior. As of Monday afternoon, conservative Fox News was carrying a report that questioned Broadwell’s possible access to classified information.

For now, Petraeus can be taken at his word, and he has suffered a humiliating departure from public service. Is that punishment enough? If indeed there were no violations of secure information, then it appears that yes, it is.

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