Petraeus and the US obsession with sex scandals

Let’s talk about Mr. Petraeus.

Having an affair certainly can make someone a security risk (and a laughing stock). But that does not explain why the US media is still yammering on about former general, and now former CIA director, David Petraeus being an adulterer, or why the bizarre conspiracies on the matter from the conservative entertainment industry are considered newsworthy.

The warriors of the Roman Republic were scarcely known for their puritanical sexual mores, but they nevertheless managed to conquer most of the known world. One minute the patriotic press are wrapping themselves in the flag and telling people to Support Our Troops! The next they are hounding (recently-former) senior officers from their jobs over ‘inappropriate’ emails.

“Honey traps,” using sex for blackmail, are real. After a recent professional event I attended, one of my colleagues recounted the story of his last trip to China when he was approached by two very charming and exceptionally pretty young ladies in the lobby of his hotel. When I mentioned this to a friend of mine in the diplomatic service, he told me of one of his bosses whose career (and marriage) came to a sudden end after a similar encounter in a well known hotel in China.

David Petraeus

It does not take a scandal chart to describe the known facts about the affair. Petraeus and Broadwell had an affair that allegedly began after Petraeus retired from the military in 2011, and thus was no longer bound by military law under which adultery is a criminal offense.

Four months ago, around the time that the affair ended, Broadwell wrote anonymous emails to Tampa socialite Jill Kelley telling her to stop making moves on ‘her’ man. Kelly then forwarded the emails to Humphries, an FBI agent who had been trying to get off with her by sending her shirtless emails. The FBI agent informed his office who opened a case. Dissatisfied by the apparent progress on the case, Humphries then contacted a member of Congress who referred the matter to GOP House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

Much is being made of the apparent delay in reporting the result of the investigation to the Director of National Intelligence, and that the President was only notified after the election. Perhaps Romney might have been elected if only the FBI had told us that the Director of the CIA can’t keep his pants zipped! As if.  I don’t doubt that the DNI delayed informing the President until after the election, but only because the President was busy with rather more important matters, and no decision could be taken until after the election in any case.

Adultery might expose an individual to threat of extortion. Under standing policy, Petraeus would have likely lost his security clearance immediately pending the outcome of an investigation. That would have made it all but impossible for Petraeus to remain as Director of the CIA for any length of time. But removing a security clearance merely prevents a person from accessing additional information that they might compromise. People cannot be forced to forget secrets they have already learned. Absent any proof that Petraeus had broken any law, there was a national security interest in not disclosing the affair unless doing so was necessary.

As a political appointee, Petraeus would lose his job automatically if Romney had won the election. It would not therefore be at all unusual for Petraeus to resign to pursue a career in the private sector shortly after the election. If Obama had lost, the faux Benghazi scandal would have been immediately forgotten and Petraeus could have resigned without attracting attention. But for the GOP faux scandal mongering, Petraeus could have resigned without the need to give a reason in any case. The only reason that it was necessary to provide explanation was that the GOP ‘Support Our Troops!’ brigade were engaged in their dishonest attempt to turn the Benghazi attack to their political advantage.

There having been no laws broken and no evidence of Petraeus having been targeted for extortion, the investigation could have been completed shortly after interviewing Petraeus, which might have allowed him to keep the job. But the fact that Humphries had alerted Cantor made that impossible.  And now, here we are, treating a simple affair between consenting adults as if it were the greatest national security breach since the Rosenbergs (which was its own controversy).


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