Yesterday saw a remarkable story break: the surprise resignation of CIA Director David H. Petraeus over an extramarital affair. Any day this would have been a biggie, since CIA directors seldom leave the job with so detailed a press release regarding salacious personal (mis)conduct. Not to mention this was just a couple days after the election and a couple days before the director was slated to testify about what exactly his Agency was up to back in September when our ambassador in Benghazi along with three other Americans, two of them CIA contractors, were killed in the line of duty by rampaging mobs of well-armed Libyan radicals.
Plus, this is Dave Petraeus we’re talking about, the best-known American general officer of his generation, heralded nearly universally as the Man of the Hour for pushing a decade now. This was the brainy, can-do soldier who, the story went, through his genius and determination reeducated the U.S. Army in counterinsurgency and then applied the new wonder-doctrine successfully in Iraq, snatching victory-lite from the jaws of defeat. Stars, accolades and glory fell on Petraeus and he became something of the Magic Man for many in and around the seat of power of Washington, DC. Even the increasingly obvious failure of his generalship and ideas in Afghanistan – where so many American projects go to die of late – could not really tarnish his stellar reputation.
There were always dissenters from the official story about Dave: some hard-lefties who saw in Petraeus the embodiment of all they disliked about the military and its impact on American life. Additionally, there were always those in the Department of Defense, in uniform and out, who sensed in Petraeus more than a whiff of hokum. Some who had gotten close to Petraeus Inc., which included a raft of young and hungry officers on the make, sensed the inner emptiness of the whole enterprise, that it was more about PR and bluster than actual accomplishment. Whispers abounded that only in an institution as intellectually bereft as today’s Army could someone like Petraeus seem like a genius. Still, none of it really mattered, and after expressing that politics (the vice-presidency, just to start) did not interest him, Petraeus retired from the Army and took over the CIA in September 2011 and Dave’s greatness moved ever forward.
Then came Paula.
For those who are professing shock that an affair happened here, I must hasten to add that the, ahem, exceptionally close relationship between Petraeus and his biographer-mentee-number one fan-running buddy, who also happened to be younger, chesty, super-fit, and fawning all over the guy at every opportunity, was something of an open secret in certain DC circles. I heard about it a couple years ago, and I have no claim to be the most networked guy on the planet. Besides, Paula’s hot-schoolgirlish repartee about her subject-mentor-boyfriend on camera was more than a little revealing. When you title your laughably hagiographic book about the guy ALL IN, you ought to expect questions. Now that weird letter to the New York Times agony-aunt, by one very unhappily cuckolded husband, takes on new significance.
So the CIA director gets caught having some sort of long-term affair – they first met in 2006; when the naked pushups began is not officially known – with a woman not his wife. Reporting to date indicates that the FBI got wind of shenanigans through an investigation of an IT compromise unrelated to where, and with whom, the director had been having extracurricular fun. (That Paula may have had stalkerish tendencies perhaps did not help her paramour here.) Surely such conduct is unbecoming by such an esteemed personage, but Petraeus would hardly be the first Big Person in the Intelligence Community to have found the burdens of marriage so heavy that he required some help to carry the load – as a former counterintelligence guy off the top I know of a half-dozen similar cases – yet Petraeus’s resignation is unique.
We are hearing from journalists who suddenly profess intricate knowledge of personnel security policy about how people with TS/SCI access have their clearances pulled over infidelity … yeah, right. Only when it’s with a suspect foreigner or there are other “issues” involved. And Mrs. Broadwell is quite American and a major in the Army Reserve, with clearances of some kind, surely. Notions that Petraeus could be compromised by a foreign intelligence service due to his zipper problems (I can see it now: the GRU illegal living as an insurance adjuster in Falls Church starts jogging with him and one day blurts out: “Meester Dave, I hear you are liking ze Paula very much, yes?”) are mostly fantasy. So, what gives?
Perhaps that FBI investigation dug up more, and worse, than we’re hearing about – and, since Petraeus has fallen on his sword and closed the door on l’affaire Paula officially, we’ll never get the full story. As a counterintelligence guy I always think there’s more to the story, and that’s often, but not always, the case. Additionally, the perfect timing of Dave’s relieving himself is so terribly convenient for the Obama administration vis-a-vis the election and Benghazi that something almost has to be up. A great deal of speculation is out there, but I wonder if we’ll ever get that story fleshed out either.
We’re being assured by Dave’s legions of fanboys and fangirls, in their current state of shock, that he will be back. Like MacArthur – another supremely self-regarding yet only intermittently successful general who fostered a remarkable personality cult with the public – he shall return. Perhaps. Time will tell, as it always does.
For now, we can begin the process of evaluating Petraeus with a bit more balance and dispassion: less worship, more analysis. The dissenters from the myth, who were always there, may now get a seat at the table in discussions of the putatively great man and his legacy. Once their current schadenfreude wears off they will have helpful contributions to make to writing the history of the Petraeus era. There were always contrary indications in the Petraeus story – the obsession with fitness, the aloofness, the slightly weird personal requirements – which will now get incorporated into the narrative, along with Paula.
David Petraeus deserves the nation’s gratitude for his leadership during the darkest years in Iraq, where he deserves credit for trying to fix a wicked problem. His solutions were flawed, but they were at least a serious effort to mend something very broken. His drive and determination were never in doubt and ought to serve as a model to our military, even if some of his other choices seem less inspired.
The only people in this suddenly rather sordid story who need sympathy are Mrs. Petraeus, Mr. Broadwell, and their children.
UPDATE (1455 EST): The FBI’s involvement in this case began with threats by Paula towards another, yet unnamed, third woman, which scared the woman so badly that she asked for help from law enforcement. Stay classy, Paula. We need Lifetime to get working on a script. We have now officially left the espionage realm and have entered the Roissysphere.
UPDATE (1030, 12 Nov): The third woman is Jill Kelley, a FL socialite/hanger-on at MacDill AFB (ie CENTCOM HQ, where she met GEN Dave a few years back). While there is no indication of any sexual relationship between Petraeus and this third woman, this did not stop Paula from sending Jill nastygrams (“I know what you did”, “stay away from my man”) which caused her to go to the FBI. Jill, who like Paula is married to a physician, is of Lebanese background, looks like she walked off the set of The Real Housewives of Tampa, and is laying low right now.