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Why did David Petraeus have to step down from the CIA?

If it was personal, not professional, we should find a way to move on – without casualties

Susan Reimer

7:49 PM EST, November 11, 2012

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We need to learn to get past these bimbo eruptions.

Because if we don't find a way to forgive and move forward, a lot of good people are going to end up on the scrapheap.

Gen. David Petraeus is the latest.

Perhaps the most brilliant and successful soldier-scholar of his generation, who was remaking the Central Intelligence Agency to face insurgencies and China, resigned last week, admitting he had had an extra-marital affair.

An FBI investigation into complaints from a woman that Gen. Petraeus' comely biographer, Paula Broadwell, was threatening her brought to light steamy e mails between the general and his acolyte, herself a West Point graduate who never disguised her adoration for him as a leader and a man.

(News reports have has since identified the woman who received the harassing emails as 37-year-old Jill Kelley, a State Department's liaison to the military's Joint Special Operations Command in Tampa.)

Right now, there is no evidence that Ms. Broadwell, who is married and has two young sons, had access to the general's CIA e-mail account or any classified information. What the FBI found, in the words of a source quoted over the weekend, was "a lot of human drama."

"I'm not that shocked," said military journalist Tom Ricks, who just finished a book that casts Gen. Petraeus in a favorable light. "You put an officer out there on repeated tours and if he doesn't slip, I'd be surprised."

He told CNN, "What we have today is shocking proof that Gen. Petraeus is a human being."

Though President Barack Obama told his CIA chief that he did not need to resign – and took 24 hours to consider whether to accept it -- Gen. Petraeus said, "Such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours."

When we hear that someone in a position of power is resigning for personal matters, we are always suspicious that this is just a cover story for something more sinister. That's the case here, too.

Gen. Petraeus was scheduled to testify on the intelligence failures that cost four Americans their lives in Benghazi, and though his resignation does not preclude his testimony, President Obama's detractors are certain his testimony would have embarrassed the president.

Republicans are also in dudgeon that this affair was not revealed before the election, and Congress is furious at being kept in the dark.

Marriage is complicated, and military service makes it more so. Gen. Petraeus was away from his wife, Holly, for almost six of the last 10 years. That's not an excuse, but it might be an explanation. Men such as he are going to have to be able to survive these intensely private falls from grace or we are going to run out of talent.

This is Washington, and this is the CIA. But from what we know now, he wasn't an alcoholic or a drug addict – something that might impair his thinking. He did nothing unethical or illegal in his official capacity. He was not having sex with a subordinate, and he did nothing truly weird, like Rep. Anthony Weiner, who sent those cellphone pictures of his crotch to random women.

Hell, from what I have learned about the CIA in the last few days, they even have a mechanism for this: Tell the agency's security chief that you are having an affair with an American citizen and you are good to go. The agency just doesn't want to be lied to, or to have its people vulnerable to blackmail.

"In the CIA, if you haven't had an affair, you aren't considered a player," said Mr. Ricks of an agency where people travel a great deal, are good at keeping secrets and tell their families next to nothing about what they do.

Let me be clear about something. I was no fan of the surge in Afghanistan that Gen. Petraeus talked President Obama into. Those who know my family know I have a dog in that fight.

But even from this great distance, I respected his brains, his fortitude and his leadership. It is those things that the country has lost to what is a personal matter, albeit a very painful one for him and for his family.

Also, I have written in the past that couples should work hard to find a way past this kind crisis in a marriage, because blowing up the family is really, really tough on the kids, no matter what their age. Heaven only knows what this is going to do to the CIA, which hasn't exactly been covering itself in glory this past decade.

The list of public and private men and women -- and Secret Service agents -- caught cheating is long and it will only grow, especially in the digital age, where lipstick can never be erased from a collar.

We have to find a way to get past this human frailty or we face a shrinking talent pool. I respect Gen. Petraeus sense of honor, but righteousness doesn't get the job done.

Susan Reimer's column regularly appears on Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached at susan.reimer@baltsun.com and @Susan Reimer on twitter.com

An earlier version of this column gave the wrong age for Jill Kelley. The Sun regrets the error.

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