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Abraham R. Wagner Headshot

The New Morality

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The resignation of David Petraeus as CIA Director, bringing to inglorious end to a stellar career in military and public service, is simply not justified by either the historic precedents or circumstances surrounding his affair with Paula Broadwell. With the 2012 elections now past the media have seized upon the Petraeus story, blowing it entirely out of all proportions with a strange mix of non-existent national security concerns and a new morality never applied before.

There is nothing new about senior public officials or military officers having extra marital affairs. Here they join about half the American population who have also engaged in such behavior. The sexual exploits of Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Clinton -- just to begin are already legend. Even the most critical biographers of these presidents would agree that their affairs did not disqualify them from holding the nation's highest office, or pose a great national security risk.

Where the CIA Directorship is concerned George H.W. Bush and George Tenet both serve as CIA Director and were both involved in extra-marital affairs which received little or no national attention at all. In the case of Bush his long-standing affair with Jennifer Fitzgerald received exceedingly little press coverage, and lasted well into his Vice Presidency. Tenet's extra-marital affairs, known widely within the national security community, were entirely ignored by the press and the Congressional oversight committees, while his departure from CIA was marked with an award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

It has never been CIA policy to disqualify any employee for service or access to the most sensitive national secrets solely because of an extra-marital affair. Indeed, if this was in fact the policy Langley would likely look like a ghost town. This is simply what the facts of the matter are, and the reality of the social mores that have dominated the Agency and for that matter all of Washington for generations. To now hold Petraeus to a different or higher standard is the height of hypocrisy.

Accounts of the matter thus far indicate that James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence and himself a retired General and flag officer suggested Petraeus resign as a on the basis of this is what a flag officer should do. It remains to be seen whether Clapper did this on his own after receiving information on the affair or was asked to do this by a White House that had already thrown Clapper under the bus on the Libya scandal. In any event, the argument doesn't hold too much water. The affair began long after Petraeus had left the military and begun his service as a civilian CIA Director -- at the request of President Obama. Very few general officers would agree that there is some special social code that provides a lifetime bar on such affairs for retired flag officers. To even suggest this is simply absurd.

The argument that the Petraeus affair posed some national security threat because of the potential for blackmail is not particularly credible either. Certainly this possibility is always a security concern, but Agency policy for decades has been to not disqualify any employee for this reason, absent other factors and considerations. There has never been and should not be a different policy for the Agency's Director. Where Petraeus is concerned, it would be hard to even imagine anybody less susceptible to blackmail by a foreign intelligence service.

In the security realm the only issue left is the reported classified material which the FBI found on the computer belonging to Paula Broadwell. Thus far there is no indication that this material came from Petraeus, and no reason to suggest wrongdoing on this part here. Broadwell's unauthorized possession of these classified materials on her personal computer is in fact a federal criminal offense, and whether or not the government pursues this is still open to question. The original issue of "cyberstalking" which began this sordid tale doesn't seem to rise above the level of a petty dispute among the women involved, and nothing at all to do with Petraeus' ability to continue as CIA Director.

Ultimately what the press now wants to see as the sex scandal of the century will fade, and history will hopefully regard it as a personal matter for the Petraeus family and the others involved. American history is replete with examples of forgiveness and redemption. Hopefully this is not the end to the distinguished career of David Petraeus and he will again emerge in public service in some capacity -- possibly as a political candidate or again as a Presidential appointment. Most people would agree that despite all the issues in Bill Clinton's personal life, if he could run for President again he would be elected in a landslide. David Petraeus deserves as least as much.