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E-Mails from Biographer to a Third Party Led to Petraeus’ Resignation

How should we Evaluate Patraeus’ accomplishments in light of his Affair?

What is it about middle age men and their libidos? First it was Bill Clinton. Then, John Edwards followed by Eliot Spitzer. Fit Tiger Woods in there. I could go on but you get the picture. The latest to fall from grace is General David Petraeus, the American former military officer and public official.

Patraeus served as Director of the CIA from September 6, 2011, until his resignation on November 9, 2012. Petraeus acknowledged in his announcement that he had shown "extremely poor judgment by engaging in an extramarital affair." You think?

The woman at the center of the extramarital affair that led to the resignation of Petraeus is a highly-accomplished, West Point graduate like Patraeus, author and anti-terrorist specialist who got to know the high-profile general, in part, by going running with him in Afghanistan.

Paula Broadwell met Gen. David Petraeus in 2006, when she introduced herself after he gave a speech at Harvard's Kennedy School, where Broadwell was working on a master's degree. She got to know the General thereafter and wrote a book about him: All In: The Education of General David Petraeus. The glowing biography was taken offline shortly after her name was linked to the scandal.

The sordid affair was uncovered by an FBI investigation of “harassing” e-mails sent by Broadwell to another woman reported to be Jill Kelley who was a "social liaison" to military bases in Tampa, Florida. That probe led agents to Broadwell's email account, which uncovered the relationship with the retired four-star general, who earned acclaim for his leadership of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When F.B.I. agents followed up on the complaint and began to examine Broadwells’ e-mails, they discovered exchanges between her and Petraeus that revealed that they were having an affair, according to several officials who described the investigation on the condition of anonymity. They also discovered that Broadwell apparently had acquired some classified documents, and considered whether Petraeus might be the source, one official said.

The F.B.I. investigators were not pursuing evidence of Petraeus’s marital infidelity, which would not be a criminal matter. But their examination of his e-mails, most or all of them sent from a personal account and not from his C.I.A. account, raised the possibility of security breaches that needed to be addressed directly with him.

The agents apparently concluded, however, that it was probably not Petraeus who had given them to her, and that there had been no major breach of security. No leak charges are expected to be filed as a result of the investigation.

President Obama praised the General in his announcement of the resignation on November 9. "David Petraeus has provided extraordinary service to the United States for decades. By any measure, he was one of the outstanding General officers of his generation, helping our military adapt to new challenges, and leading our men and women in uniform through a remarkable period of service in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he helped our nation put those wars on a path to a responsible end," Obama said. "As Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, he has continued to serve with characteristic intellectual rigor, dedication, and patriotism. By any measure, through his lifetime of service David Petraeus has made our country safer and stronger.”

The Patraeus-Broadwell matter raises the question whether his life’s-work should be judged by his military accomplishments, which are significant, or the fall from grace because of his extramarital affair. Normally, I am willing to forgive someone for such discretion. To do so I look for signs of true regret for one’s actions: (1) admit to the mistake willingly; (2) show true remorse for what you have done; (3) apologize to those you have harmed; and (4) promise to never do it again.

Patraeus may have met these requirements. Still, he was in a sensitive national security position that, in my mind, overrides these prerequisites of true forgiveness. Who knows what he told Broadwell? Who know what she might now try to pass on to others, most of who have no right to know about the inner workings of the CIA or its field operations?

Patraeus exhibited a severe lack of judgment, lack of common sense, contempt for the uniform, and disrespect for his family. I cannot forgive his actions under any circumstances. Putting aside the issue of remorsefulness, it’s important to remember that ethics is not judged by situational behavior or relative to one’s beliefs. Ethics rely on established standards of moral behavior in society, not to mention the military code of conduct. Patraeus violated these norms and as a leader in the military he dishonored the uniform and put into question his service to the country.

Patraeus should be held to a higher standard because of his position. My goodness, he presided over much of "the surge" period in the war in Afghanistan. Under other circumstances I might have forgiven him, but not when he potentially compromised sensitive military information by passing it along to Broadwell. It doesn’t matter whether he did or did not do so. He shouldn’t put himself in such a compromising position by having an affair with his biographer, writer, and someone who had the potential to taint his entire life’s work.

To quote the incomparable Forrest Gump: “Stupid is what stupid does.”

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 12, 2012