If we had expected some kind of news lull after the election, we sure didn't get it. The fall of David Petraeus pretty much dominated the news last week – and how could it not? The story's subjects included a popular, high-profile general turned CIA director and two young, self-promoting and apparently loopy women. And the rest of us, I suspect, were ready for some entertainment.
But there's a serious issue underneath all that theater: Did Petraeus need to resign? My initial thought was, yes. His marriage and his affairs are nobody's business but his own, but it becomes our business if his behavior puts the nation's security at risk. And at first, it seemed that it might – particularly given what we've learned about his women friends.
Petraeus seemed to be a prime blackmail target.
But then I came across the following in a Washington Post opinion piece by John Prados, a senior research fellow at the National Security Archive:
"The ostensible concern about the Petraeus affair was the potential for blackmail. Yet it is far-fetched today to think that a foreign government would contrive an operation to ensnare a CIA employee through an affair, a foreign-spy spouse or an allegation of homosexuality. Our enemies are unlikely to bother with such complicated schemes. Instead, they buy information — the method that has remained tried and true — or attempt to hack it from the data-rich computer networks that the government is spending billions to defend."
Maybe we need an unemotional discussion about this. Based on what, besides their official accomplishments, should we assess public officials? Does their private behavior tell us anything significant?
When Gary Hart was hoping to get the Democratic presidential nomination in 1987, I decided that if stories about his philandering were true, that disqualified him – particularly when he dared the media to catch him. It just seemed an indication of appallingly bad judgment.
But Bill Clinton's affair with an intern was hardly an example of emotional maturity and sound judgment. Neither were John Kennedy's multiple extra-marital interests.
Affairs – some flagrant, some milder – haven't been rare among presidents. Dwight Eisenhower, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson.... But many of us figure that their accomplishments outweigh their personal weaknesses. (And since none of us were on the inside of those marriages, the "weakness" charge is risky.)
Johnson's a particularly intriguing example, since unfaithfulness pales in importance to things like his vote stealing and the Vietnam War. And yet with that deeply complicated man, we also got the Voting Rights Act, two Civil Rights Acts, Medicare, and Medicaid. And he pulled together a traumatized country following John Kennedy's assassination.
Some media commentators have suggested that by having an affair with his biographer, David Petraeus betrayed the trust of the American people. I don't know. Seems to me we're sometimes pretty selective about what we consider "betrayal." And if these commentators are expecting perfection in our leaders, I have some disappointing news for them.
BTW: if we want to focus on something genuinely important, how about the role and the activities of the agency Petraeus recently led?
Intelligence gathering is crucial to national security, but the CIA has a particularly sordid history of stepping way outside of that role – fostering coups of duly elected governments of other nations, for instance. And a recent article in The Nation warns of the increasing militarization of the CIA.
The agency "has strayed from intelligence to paramilitary-type activities," Jeremy Scahill writes. Scahill offers this quote from Philip Giraldi, a retired career CIA case officer: "A considerable part of the CIA budget is now no longer spying; it's supporting paramilitaries who work closely with JSOC [the US military's Joint Special Operations Command] to kill terrorists, and to run the drone program."
The CIA "is a killing machine now," Giraldi told Scahill.
The role of the CIA and what this country is willing to do as part of – or under the guise of – fighting terrorism: Now there's something worth talking about. And worth dominating the national news.