11/16/2012 02:59 pm ET Updated Jan 15, 2013

The Petreaus Double Standard

Gen. David Petreaus was forced to resign from the C.I.A. because he had an affair. The actual act of adultery was not by itself the proximate cause of the need for him to resign, we have been told. Rather, it was that having an affair put him at risk for blackmail by foreign enemies who might use that information to their advantage, thereby threatening national security. Civil libertarians and others who rose to defend President Clinton in 1998 when his affair with a White House intern was disclosed, and led to his impeachment, have been silent. They came to the President's defense then because he was being hounded out of office for lying about an affair, which they assured everyone was venial.

There really is no difference between the two cases. The President is just as vulnerable to being blackmailed as the C.I.A. Director by foreign enemies. Imagine the President is negotiating an agreement with the Russians or Chinese and one of the negotiators from the other side pulls over someone from our side and whispers in his ear, "we know about the President's affair with the White House intern. If you want it kept quiet, then give us what we want on that missile defense shield." The US negotiator would have to report that to the President, and he is then put in an impossible position: revealing the affair to the world or capitulating to an adversary, likely an impeachable offense.

Yet the defenders of President Clinton dismissed such concerns. They contended the affair was nobody's business but his and his wife's. It could have no effect on the country. But nobody, including General Petreaus, made that argument in his defense last week. Why not? Because it is palpably untrue. The C.I.A. Director's job is to spy on foreigners, and he must be free to use information learned by the agency, that is he must never be compromised by a personal peccadillo. This must also be true for the President, the Secretary of Defense and many others who possess national security secrets and are in direct contact with foreign governments.

We know our presidents are not without faults. But have we ever had a President who's moral failings were as public as Clinton's were? Presidents do not need to be pure, but if they engage in reckless conduct while in office, then shouldn't that be a relevant inquiry for Congress? Can anyone really say President Clinton's affair while President should have been ignored? And was pursuing it the act of a puritanical Republican Congress hell bent on political vengeance? It should now be understood that the Clinton inquiry was necessary and appropriate. If a President commits any act which makes him vulnerable to blackmail while in office, it is a potential breach of national security. The country must act. This would now seem to be non-controversial. And all those who excoriated Republicans for pursuing President Clinton's affair owe the country a mea culpa.