Stealth: You Suck at It. (Why Petraeus Had to Go)

Lindsay Beyerstein

Jane Mayer of the New Yorker asks whether David Petraeus should have had to resign over his affair with Paula Broadwell:

Within the military, there are rules about adultery. But within civilian life, should there be? The line of the day on the morning talk shows in Washington seemed to be that Petraeus did the honorable” thing, or he had to resign.” The old saw that, if he wasn’t squeaky clean, he could be subject to blackmail by his enemies, thus endangering national security, was mentioned again and again. To me, the whole Victorian shame game seems seriously outdated. Something like half the marriages in the country now end in divorce, and you can bet a great many of those involved extra-marital affairs. Is it desirable to bar such a large number of public servants from top jobs? It certainly seems fair to question Petraeus’s judgment, ethics, and moral fibre in this matter. But if infidelity wasn’t treated as career-threatening, its value to black-mailers would be much reduced (the fear of a spouse is another matter).

If Petraeus were HUD Secretary, I would agree. There’s no reason why you can’t be a good HUD Secretary and an adulterer; or a good president and an adulterer; or a good dogcatcher and and an adulterer.

Being a spy is a different kind of job. Everyone would agree that a minimal qualification for leading the CIA is being a good spy. The fact that Petraeus got caught having an affair with Paula Broadwell pretty much torpedos his credibility as a spy or a leader of spies.

Being a spy is one of those rare occupations that demands not just on-the-job performance, but a whole off-the-job lifestyle. You are expected to have your affairs in order, not just with regards to sex, drugs, debt, mental and physical health and other sensitive domains. These types of rules are designed to make spies less vulnerable to blackmail. 

According to the State Department, in order for a person to obtain a security clearance, It must be determined that the individual’s personal and professional history indicates loyalty to the United States, strength of character, trustworthiness, honesty, reliability, discretion, and sound judgment, as well as freedom from conflicting allegiances and potential for coercion, and a willingness and ability to abide by regulations governing the use, handling, and protection of classified information.”

Petraeus got caught because the FBI successfully linked him to a gmail account he was using to communicate with his mistress. Rookie mistake.

As CIA director, Petraeus was responsible for supervising a whole oranization of people who have to live under heightened scrutiny. A HUD director isn’t responsible for auditing the personal lives of all the civil servants who serve under him. The fact that Petraeus flouted those rules and got caught makes him a less credible leader in the eyes of his subordinates.

If your job involves professional stealth, it’s tremendously embarrassing to get caught out in a failed deception. If Petraeus can’t even conduct an affair over email without getting caught, what does that say about his spying acumen or his understanding of basic technology? The flatfoots at the FBI shouldn’t be catching the Director of Central Intelligence emailing his mistress.

Petraeus not only had an affair, he had an affair with a phenomenally indiscreet person. He was fooling around with a woman who apparently thought nothing of browbeating a perceived rival for Petraeus’ affections.

The FBI may have overstepped in its probe of Broadwell, whom it now admits broke no laws. But it’s just Petraeus’s relative good luck that he got caught by overzealous FBI agents, rather than agents of a foreign power. A CIA director can’t assume that his communications are only vulnerable to people with scrupulous concern for his constitutional rights.

We can debate about whether the CIA’s code of conduct is outdated. But given that Petraeus broke the rules as they stand, he was right to step down. More to the point, whatever you think of his personal morality, the fact that he got caught proved he was bad at his job.

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Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://​www​.hill​man​foun​da​tion​.org/​h​i​l​l​m​a​nblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.
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