The swirling controversy surrounding the resignation of the director of the CIA, former four-star general David Petraeus, because of an extramarital affair is extremely perturbing. Surprisingly, the affair is perhaps the least bothersome piece of information about the whole situation. This is in no way to diminish the significance of General Petraeus’s actions; he made a mistake and seems to recognize the implications, both private and political, of his actions. The ensuing media circus harkens back to another scandal in the 90’s when a stain on the blue dress of a young White House intern provided Americans with a front row view of a marital meltdown. But is it appropriate that the political implications of such a tragedy even be taken into account? America’s continued fascination with the private lives of its public servants seems, at best, invasive and voyeuristic at worst. The problems with the scandal itself and its subsequent handling in the media bespeak larger problems with our criminal justice infrastructure and, more broadly, with our attitudes towards lapses in moral judgment.
By way of providing some backstory, let me just fill in some of the details surrounding the actual investigation which ended up bringing the General down. Jill Kelley, a Tampa socialite and family friend of General Petraeus and his wife, began receiving emails, which she described as “threatening.” Recently, there has been some reporting to suggest that the emails may not have been as threatening as they were made out to be; but, as of yet, the precise contents of these emails remains unclear. Jill Kelley then brought this complaint to a friend of hers who works at the FBI, this agent then brought this information to the Bureau which, in turn, began an investigation. This investigation traced the emails back to a woman named Paula Broadwell, who happened to be General Petraeus’s biographer. An apparent search of Ms. Broadwell’s electronic communications led the investigation to the information that the General had been having an affair with Ms. Broadwell. At this point, none of the details of the investigation or its findings had been made public or shared with the White House or any relevant Congressional body, though it is worth mentioning that there was no evidence at that time, or since, that any crime had been committed. Further complicating the situation, the FBI friend of Jill Kelley was revealed to have sent shirtless photos of himself to Ms. Kelley. Frustrated with the pace of the investigation (which he wasn’t actually a part of) he also contacted a member of the House Republican Caucus who passed the information along to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor who then put Jill Kelley in touch with the Director of the FBI.
The story is compelling and reads almost like a spy novel. Yet, while it makes for great television, a question which has gone wildly underappreciated is precisely how an investigation into “threatening” emails sent to Jill Kelley found its way to General Petraeus. Actually, a more appropriate question may be not “How?” but “Why?”. Initially, the investigation was into a relatively mild case of “threatening” emails sent to Jill Kelley and there was no reason to believe that the situation was any more complex than that. Once the emails were traced back to Paula Broadwell, and once it was determined whether or not her communications with Kelley constituted any kind of crime, the investigation should have stopped there. Under what pretense did the FBI then, essentially, begin a brand new investigation into the private life of the director of the Central Intelligence Agency? Furthermore, why where the details of the investigation into a nonexistent crime brought to the attention of the Congress and then made public? It seems a stunning indictment of the American criminal justice system for the Federal Bureau of Investigation to be picking through the private lives of public officials, and an official in no less a sensitive position than the director of the CIA, with no evidence of any crime having been committed. One would certainly hope that the FBI has better ways to spend its taxpayer-funded resources than investigating the peccadilloes of powerful Washingtonians.
The added dimension of this tragedy is not just in the heartbreak and sorrow it must certainly have caused in the Petraeus family, but also in the media circus these tragedies seem, inevitably, to create. The usual tin hats are out in force, speculating (wildly) as to whether the General’s resignation was some sort of cover up for the Obama administration’s handling of the killings of four Americans in Benghazi since General Petraeus was set to testify before Congress on that exact subject. To treat this speculation as a viable viewpoint would be the epitome of false equivalency, partly because it’s a ridiculous assertion to begin with, but also because his resignation doesn’t prevent him from testifying since Congressional committees have subpoena power and could simply compel him to testify anyway.
The treatment of General Petraeus’s affair, by the public and the media, on a more personal, human level has also been disappointing. It’s easy to pile on in criticizing someone who’s made a mistake but the American citizenry should be reminded that David Petraues served his country honorably, in uniform and out, for nearly 40 years, led the United States military in Iraq and Afghanistan and remains, to this day, a war hero. Again, this is not to diminish the poor judgment Petraeus showed or to downplay the anguish he has almost certainly caused his family and others, but simply to put the events in perspective.
The American public could stand to be a good deal more compassionate and understanding when it comes to the private lives of its public officials. There needs to be a broader recognition that, while it may not be bad to hold our leaders to the highest standards possible, they are, at the end of the day, just as human as the rest of us.