The Petraeus Scandal Within a Scandal

The scandal that led to P4's downfall has many layers, none of them flattering to the most famous American general of his generation.

General David Petraeus’ resignation as CIA Director after an adulterous affair is shocking news, although perhaps it shouldn’t be. Yes, Petraeus has been in the public eye for years now and his reputation for moral decency has always been unimpeachable. Then again, the same was true of Tiger Woods. And Joe Paterno.

The affair itself is a moral failure. After 38 years of marriage and raising two children together, it’s a horrible betrayal. But, while unacceptable, it’s certainly understandable. Paula Broadwell, his alleged paramour, is the type of woman I’d expect Petraeus to be attracted to were he single. She’s a fellow West Point graduate, counterinsurgency expert, fitness nut, and PhD. She’s good looking and, alas, 20 years younger than his wife. Mix in a close working relationship and long periods of physical separation from his wife,* that the natural attraction got consummated perhaps shouldn’t surprise us.

Less forgivable are allegations that Petraeus allowed Broadwell access to classified documents as part of the research for her book. That’s not only illegal, it’s potentially dangerous to the national security. That said, unless substantial evidence comes in to the contrary, I’m inclined to give the general the benefit of the doubt on this. Our classification system is something of a farce. A collection of clippings from the New York Times could become a classified document, potentially even a TOP SECRET document, if it’s deemed that the combined work creates a narrative that would be dangerous for the enemy to possess. Further, a combined work that contains even a sentence of classified material is classified at the level of the most sensitive piece of information in the work. So, it’s possible that Petraeus gave access to the work but redacted the sensitive material. For that matter, with low level documents at the SECRET level, he may well have decided that letting a former Army intelligence officer read them simply didn’t constitute a threat.

Oddly, the thing that I find most troubling about the scandal thus far is something that’s neither immoral nor illegal but just cheesy and dishonest: Petraeus’ allowing a woman he’s having an affair with publish a hagiography. Broadwell’s book was widely panned, even by admirers of Petraeus, as over the top in its praise of the man. It was bad enough that he’d spent months of his time being shadowed for such a syrupy treatment, much less that he’d read and approved it. Even without a romantic relationship, he should have been embarrassed. But for the author to be someone who was secretly sleeping with the subject is just beyond the pale; it’s a fraud against the reader in which Petraeus willingly participated.

Also: Under the circumstances, you’d think one of them would have decided that All In was an unfortunate title for the book.


*In my Army days, the term “geographic bachelor” was used to describe married men on unaccompanied tours overseas. Officially, it just meant that they were entitled only to quarters available to single soldiers of their rank rather than family housing. But it was also tacitly understood that they might emulate other lifestyle habits of unmarried men.

FILED UNDER: Intelligence, Military Affairs, National Security, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Murray says:

    Human. ALL so human.

  2. Argon says:

    Dereliction of duty. Should’ve resigned before any investigation started.

  3. superdestroyer says:

    According to her wikipedia page, Mrs. Broadwell does not have a PhD but was just a PhD student. cite

    What is amazing is that Mrs. Broadwell is also married, to an interventional radiologist. I guess that is how she has enough money to fly around the world pursing famous men.

  4. Woody says:

    You’ve packed a lot of interesting threads into this post.

    The military has a very complex relationship in 2000s America. There is a genuine respect across all demographics (not for every action taken by a military person, but for the fundamental role of the institution for our society). However, the adversarial nature of our political system are preventing us from much needed military reform.

    I’ll know politicians are serious about fiscal matters when they begin to address the bloat that is weakening the military by directing resources into redundant and/or unnecessary areas.

    Neither political party will allow any reform, though – like the GOP, any reform will have to be done by an insider. It’s too bad – it might have been Petraeus.

  5. Mike says:

    Hundreds of emails? Post break up? That’s so Army. I wonder if he gave her a PowerPoint brief and the advantages of staying together

  6. Janis Gore says:

    Well, now, somebody finds a clue.

  7. Just Me says:

    I am curious how the affair wasn’t discovered during the FBI vetting process. Makes me wonder if they did a piss poor job because of who Petraeus was (and at the time he was a highly regarded and respected general-shoot up until yesterday I would still say he was highly regarded and respected).

  8. Herb says:

    Oddly, the thing that I find most troubling about the scandal thus far is something that’s neither immoral nor illegal but just cheesy and dishonest: Petraeus’ allowing a woman he’s having an affair with publish a hagiography

    Not sure I’d put this in “most troubling” but that does make it twice as sleazy.

    Most troubling for me is that I don’t think he would have done that ten years ago, five years ago. Not while he was on the way up. He wouldn’t dare.

    But then he gets to the top and goes, “Ah, what the hell.”

  9. superdestroyer says:

    A better question when the topic of adultery comes up: If Petraeus was willing to screw over his wife of 37 years, who else has he screwed over in the past or in the present. My guess is that he screwed over someone at the CIA and they are getting their revenge.

  10. michael reynolds says:

    Jeez, people need to dial back the outrage. He was a good general, he was an accomplished man, and he did what men (and obviously women) do sometimes. Were you under the impression that he was up for sainthood?

  11. Janis Gore says:
  12. Janis Gore says:

    Katherine graduated from UT? We were probably there at the same time. Her major?

  13. Janis Gore says:

    I did do a summer there.

  14. michael reynolds says:

    @Janis Gore:

    1979. She ran the women’s center at UT Austin where she may have been the only straight woman. Mostly I think she arranged bake sales. In fact I endeared myself to her by baking for those sales. (Katherine is many things but she has no business being in a kitchen.) So I baked banana bread for lesbians all the way back in 1979, before it was cool.

  15. Janis Gore says:

    I was there earlier, ’76, I’d say. I wasn’t interested in women’s issues. i was catching up on organic chemistry and French.

  16. Janis Gore says:

    Laissez le bon temps roulez, and all.

  17. James in LA says:

    @michael reynolds: He was a good general.

    That is a debate that is not yet settled. If he was so able to set aside his judgement in this case, what else has he done that was masked by the limelight? Leopards of his vintage long retain the patterns within their coats.

  18. James Joyner says:

    @Just Me: Petraeus already held a TSI clearance and had been trusted with the highest levels of classified information for years. He’d been confirmed by the Senate multiple times in recent years. I doubt there was much of a vetting.

    @Herb: My guess is that it’s just a matter of opportunity meeting circumstance. I have no idea what the state of his marriage was prior to meeting Ms. Broadwell but the attention of a young, accomplished woman who likely had much more in common with him at this stage of his life than the woman he married 37 years before was likely very hard to resist.

    @superdestroyer: Meh. Sexual indiscretion just isn’t the same as the other categories. It’s a lousy thing to do and it put him in a compromising position someone in his billet can’t allow. But giving in to his desires for an attractive woman doesn’t make him more likely to otherwise be a bad person.

  19. 11B40 says:

    Greetings, Mr. Joyner:

    Congratulations on your referencing Joe Paterno. It’s been a while since you had an opportunity or inclination in that regard. And it couldn’t have been easy to suppress your own previous “officer and gentleman” training and overcome the much more obvious adulterous behavior of say, former President (I did not have sexual relations with that woman) Clinton whom I don’t recall resigning if you get my drift.

    I’m sure you have a good, cogent explanation and I am so looking forward to it.

  20. Janis Gore says:

    We have a fine, upstanding gentleman here. Where y’all come from?

  21. al-Ameda says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Jeez, people need to dial back the outrage. He was a good general, he was an accomplished man, and he did what men (and obviously women) do sometimes. Were you under the impression that he was up for sainthood?

    Exactly, Michael.

  22. Kolohe says:

    But then he gets to the top and goes, “Ah, what the hell.”

    Well, he wasn’t quite at the top. Still could have been Army Chief of Staff (or CJCS), and more importantly could have been a serious contender for President (though he said he didn’t want the job – but everyone in his position says they don’t want the job)

    Jeez, people need to dial back the outrage

    I don’t think anybody is really ‘outraged’ but a lot of people are disappointed (and most are surprised). But unlike a run of the mill politician or CEO, this is something that he simply *cannot* do – as both a (then) military officer and (current) Intelligence Community employee. The rules for any of his subordinates in either organization are quite clear on the matter, (whether or not you agree with them), and it does no good to have a different rule for the head poobah than for a lesser poobahs or any of the peons. Still, he deserves some credit for coming clean with the reason in his resignation announcement. Very Hoynes-esque.

    At first I though maybe this came out because of the investigation of BGEN Sinclair, but it seems less likely as more details are revealed.

  23. Janis Gore says:

    I think we have run what ‘s called a “coup d’etat’, my gentle sisters.

  24. matt says:

    @michael reynolds: Ever thought of founding a Michael Reynolds scholarship for UT students? 😛

  25. James Joyner says:

    @11B40: Tiger was the immediate example to come to mind. Paterno came during the drafting. Clinton never did because, let’s face it, we all knew he was a sleazebag from Day 1. Tiger and JoePa, though, were much more akin to P4: Almost universally admired for his personal virtue even by those who weren’t a fan of them professionally.

  26. mike says:

    I can think of a good title for her next book about him.

    I feel sad for his wife. He had such limited time with her over the past 10 years b/c of his deployments and she stands by him. He takes what limited time he has and spends it writing 100s of emails and puts the rest of his limited time and energy into screwing a married woman 2o yrs younger. A crime which was punishable at the time under the UCMJ, Art 134 – if it was under a desk where it was likely someone could walk in on it, then it probably violates the indecent acts Article of the UCMJ.

  27. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Were you under the impression that he was up for sainthood?

    Michael, our heroes aren’t supposed to be human. Did you miss that class?

  28. Argon says:

    @James Joyner: “But giving in to his desires for an attractive woman doesn’t make him more likely to otherwise be a bad person.”

    So there’s no correlation? I doubt that. Perhaps a weak correlation but it’s not nonexistent.

    In any case, I’m not upset with him for having an affair but as head of an agency with very good reasons for having no tolerance for covering that stuff up, he set a terrible example. If he’d revealed to the agency at the outset of the affair that he’d chosen to keep a mistress then fine. But creating a situation where you could be subject to blackmail and compromise? Unacceptable. Unprofessional. Human? Sure but there are plenty of other candidates fr the position who wouldn’t have done it.

    He was secretive about the affair. He got caught. He ‘fessed up. He left and that’s that. My only beef is that he should have skipped the first two steps and gone straight to confessing the day after he fooled around. Is this is all that high a standard?

  29. CSK says:

    For what it’s worth, the latest story from the Washington Post is that Broadwell (a fine name, no doubt, but unfortunate in these circumstances) was sending threatening emails to another female associate/friend/acquaintance of Petraeus, and the woman grew so terrified by the content of those emails that she went to the FBI. If true, this suggests that either Petraeus had another lover concurrent with Broadwell, or that he dumped Broadwell for the new lover. Neither shows particularly good judgment, especially on the part of a man in his position.

    Sometimes, General, it’s best to keep the missile in the silo. But I suppose you know that now.

  30. An Interested Party says:

    11B40’s concern for Joe Paterno is really quite touching…Bill Clinton merely had sex outside of his marriage, unlike Paterno, who didn’t do enough to expose a rampant child molester…save some of that moral outrage that JoePa was somehow treated unfairly and instead direct it at all of Sandusky’s victims who were treated far worse…

  31. mike says:

    @Argon: He didn’t really fess up. He did what the thief who is caught on videotape does after his 7 co-conspirators all confess – he fessed up. Petreaus waited until the last possible second after his affair was discovered completely, by the FBI no less, and then tried to be honorable.

  32. James Joyner says:

    @mike: Surely, you don’t expect a man to voluntarily give up his career, marriage, and reputation over a private indiscretion without being backed into a corner? I gather that he had ended the affair and hoped to move past it. Many have done that successfully.

  33. Mike says:

    @James Joyner: No I don’t expect him to but I don’t “credit” him for “coming clean”

  34. Eric Florack says:

    When the left in this country starts talking about morality, you can bet that there is an ulterior motive involved. That the Party of Bill “You better put some ice on that ” Clinton is worried about someone’s immorality on it’s own sake, strikes me as stretching credulity beyond all recovery. Indeed, given their lack of attention a morality under most situations it is the only way that the subject is going to come up

    Granted, that the general opened him self up for this kind of ridicule. But the specter of someone with his military record and service to this country being ridiculed by the left as an immoral beast, the strikes me as being singularly monstrous. It also strikes me as being damned convenient.

    This administration is desperate to keep its mishandling of Benghazi off the front burner. The administration has clearly, in Nixonian like fashion…. or perhaps in Soviet style fashion, been keeping information on Petraeus and other enemies for use at moments of need. Benghazi and the damage it can cause this administration is certainly one such moment. I note with interest that the hearings on the Benghazi matter are to recommence this coming week. and of course the speculation is that the General will not testify as a result of these matters. How very convenient. The pattern already is that anybody who is supposed to be testifying before the committee is getting their backside on the plane as fast as they can to get out of town. Hillary Clinton, for example.This too strikes me as an effort in stonewalling the process.

    Are we really to believe that with the administration one gavel blow away from being nailed the wall on Benghazi, they’re not going do everything they can to distract the American people from their misdeeds in the matter?

    And where is the press on these matters?

    Chasing squirrels, of course.

    Or perhaps more correctly, laying down cover fire for the administration.

  35. Argon says:

    Thanks for reporting that Eric. I don’t watch Fox news or listen to Beck, Limbaugh, Malkin and Cain, and so it’s sometimes entertaining to hear what the crazies are thinking.

  36. Eric Florack says:

    So, how do you explain all this, then?
    Just an amazing coincidence, I suppose?

    Yeah, right.

    Tell you what; I’m open-minded… more tha yourself, I suppose. I’ll demonstrate:

    Tell us, specifically, where I’ve erred, here.
    And I mean, specifically.

    I’ll wait.

  37. Eric Florack says:

    And, by the way… I’m not buying this idea that Obama didn’t know.

  38. Argon says:

    Eric, we’ll see who’s right. Petreaus can be supoenead to testify and early reports suggest that he’s largely in line with the administration. So maybe the coincidence runs the wrong way.

    But hey, idle, uninformed speculation is free and about worth as much. Like I sad, we’ll see.

  39. Argon says:

    My, my. And now it’s being reported that the first-contact (and no friend of Obama) FBI agent leaked the case to the Republican leadership. And Cantor didn’t blow the story before the election.

    Hmm, conspiracy! But in almost the opposite direction of what the freaks on Fox and other conspiracy theorists are selling. Fox news selling a conspiracy so wrong and inane that they got it backwards. Mere coincidence?

    Oh lookie! The Daily Show provides a more cogent summary than Eric. Return to Bulls**t Mountain! Next week on Fox: Kerry swift-boated again! Clinton had Vince Foster killed!