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David Petraeus’s Double Standard

While real whistleblowers go to jail, the teflon general gets made a martyr to Obama's war on leaks.
Petraeus NYSE

When CIA officer John Kiriakou was convicted of revealing the name of an agent allegedly involved in the torture of a prisoner, then-CIA director David Petraeus heralded the court’s decision as “an important victory for our Agency, for our Intelligence Community, and for our country.”

“Oaths do matter, and there are indeed consequences for those who believe they are above the laws that protect our fellow officers and enable American intelligence agencies to operate with the requisite degree of secrecy,” he said in a statement on Oct. 23, 2012.

Less than a month later it would be revealed that former general Petraeus had broken his own oath, to his wife Holly, admitting to an affair with a woman who had once been his subordinate in the Army. In the course of the investigation that exposed the affair with Paula Broadwell—who was also his biographer—the FBI found he might have broken another oath, to the CIA (the affair supposedly began after he began his directorship there). Investigators suspected that the celebrated retired general had given her access to classified information that she was not authorized to have.

At the time, President Obama assured there was no indication that Petraeus passed along material “that in any way would have had a negative impact on our national security.”

This month, however, sources inside the Justice Department suddenly leaked that they have enough evidence to recommend felony charges against Petraeus for providing classified information to Broadwell. The New York Times, in breaking the news, suggested that investigators were frustrated that higher-ups had been dragging their feet on the case, that the man once called “King David,” was receiving “special treatment at a time Mr. [Attorney General Eric] Holder has led a crackdown on government officials who reveal secrets to journalists.”

For his part, Petraeus has insisted all along that he did not pass along classified material to his former mistress, and according to the Times, is uninterested in making any plea “that would spare him an embarrassing trial.”

Reaction has been swift and predictable. Official Washington and the elite media have rushed to Petraeus’s defense, rebuking the unnamed sources inside the Justice Department as overzealous and vindictive and possibly having ulterior motives for dragging the beloved “four star” through the mud.

“No American deserves such callous treatment, let alone one of America’s finest military leaders whose selfless service and sacrifice have inspired young Americans in uniform and likely saved many of their lives,” Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a joint statement.

Calling him “the four star general of our generation” and “a very brilliant man,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who once demanded no quarter for Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning and Edward Snowden—whistleblowers both—appeared to suggest a man’s personal appeal and status qualify as mitigating factors in a potential felony prosecution.

“This man has suffered enough in my view,” Feinstein told CNN on Jan. 11. “It’s done, it’s over. He’s retired. He’s lost his job,” Feinstein said. “I mean, how much does the government want?”

The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald was aghast when he heard the audio of her full remarks during an interview on Democracy Now on Jan. 12, calling it, “actually one of the most disgusting remarks you’ll ever hear.”

Now, what’s so amazing about that is that, first of all, the United States imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world for trivial transgressions. You would never hear Dianne Feinstein or any of those people in Washington saying about ordinary people, ‘Oh, they’ve suffered enough. They’ve lost their jobs. They’ve been taken away from their family. Let’s free them from prison.

“Maybe I’m wrong, but as I seem to remember from middle school government class, lady justice is supposed to wear a blindfold,” said Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, in a recent email exchange with TAC. He continued:

If the FBI has sufficient evidence of wrongdoing, then it ought to present those findings to a court for the consideration of indictment.  If they do not have sufficient evidence, the case needs to be closed and the suspicions related to Mr. Petraeus removed. But the stature of Mr. Petraeus, his past accomplishments, or what he may have suffered owing to self-inflicted misbehavior he may have committed should bear no weight whatsoever in the decision.

It is no secret that since leaving the CIA in a cloud of shame, Petraeus has nonetheless enjoyed a lucrative post-career, beginning with a $220,000 a year pension paid for by the U.S. taxpayer. He is also teaching at CUNY (he was forced to give up the six figure salary there after students and faculty protested), and the University of Southern California. He has a perch at Harvard, and was hired in 2013 by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, the private equity giant best known for “large debt-fueled corporate takeovers.”

While Broadwell was stripped of her security clearances, Petraeus reportedly retains his. Hardly an outcast, he has consulted with the White House on current troubles in Iraq—a war he was unable to fully win as head of U.S. Central Command, despite a barrage of accolades testifying to the contrary.

Meanwhile, Kiriakou has been in a federal prison with violent offenders for cellmates for more than two years. His wife Heather, who was pushed out of her job as a top CIA analyst three years ago—before John was even convicted—is struggling to pay the mortgage on their home while raising three young children alone. When he finally gets out in early February, he will be under house arrest until May, with little opportunity to get his family out of the enormous debt they have accumulated over the past several years since he was indicted.

Some would say that is “suffering.” But unlike the relative quiet it kept about Kiriakou’s humiliations when they were happening, the Beltway hive is already fighting—and seemingly winning—Petraeus’s battle for public opinion. If there was any doubt that the man who sold counterinsurgency (COIN) and two massively expensive (and failed) military surges to Washington is the Don Draper of the military age, one need only see how, with seemingly little effort, Petraeus is already being spun as a victim of the Obama administration’s runaway war on leaks, with the political establishment, media, and even the conservative grassroots closing ranks around him.

For his debut column at Politico last week, veteran newsman Jack Shafer penned “In Defense of David Petraeus,” which takes the Obama administration to task for over-classification and its crackdown on leakers. In defense of Shafer, he has been writing about these issues for some time and has nominally defended Edward Snowden. But he seems to compare Petraeus’s transgressions to writing bad checks and was never so breathless when talking about Kiriakou.

Neoconservative writer Eli Lake, who recently went over to Bloomberg News, also takes aim at the Obama administration in his Jan. 10 analysis, “Petraeus Caught in Obama’s War on Leaks.”

At first, Lake hints at the double standard, noting that high-level security-state offenders, if indeed that is what Petraeus is, “are almost never punished as harshly as low- and mid-level analysts,” using as an example Thomas Drake, a former NSA executive who lost his security clearance and his career, and who is now working at a Washington D.C.-area Apple Store following an aborted prosecution by the government in 2011.

Drake, a whistleblower who sacrificed his livelihood to bring attention to the unconstitutionality of the NSA’s post-9/11 data collection, has suffered, and with little or no public sympathy. The government wanted to prosecute him under the Espionage Act, thinking he had leaked information about President Bush’s warrantless surveillance program, but it couldn’t make the case. He lost everything anyway.

Lake acknowledges that, “admittedly, Petraeus played a supporting role in the administration crackdown” on leakers by taking agency credit for Kiriakou’s demise. But that is as far as Lake is willing to go. He minimizes allegations that Petraeus engaged in more than just pillow talk with his former mistress:

when Broadwell—a graduate of West Point—was writing her first biography of him, she was given access to top secret information covering the period in which Petraeus commanded allied forces in Afghanistan. This arrangement is common in Washington for established authors. Sources for Bob Woodward, whose books often disclose classified information that is provided to him through semi-official leaks, are not investigated for betraying state secrets.

Meanwhile, Petraeus has his right flank covered, too. The conservative grassroots believe he’s being blackmailed by the Obama administration over what he knows about the 2012 attacks on the American mission in Benghazi. They also sense this is a ploy to keep Petraeus from running for the White House in 2016. In the wake of the Times’ report on possible charges against Petraeus, Judge Andrew Napolitano took to the Fox News airwaves to rake Obama over the coals:

David Petraeus was the head of the CIA at the time of Benghazi … David Patraeus was mentioned as a vice presidential candidate. You can’t ethically or lawfully use the threat of a prosecution for political purposes but I am not naïve—it has happened before and it will happen again.

As national-security journalist Kevin Gosztola tells TAC, there is every reason to criticize the administration for its proliferating leak prosecutions and its zeal for using the Espionage Act to punish truth-tellers and whistleblowers. But all the evidence (that we know of) in the Petraeus case suggests that an “oath” was broken in order to sell a book, for the benefit of what turned out to be a bloated hagiography about a general who for years seemed more intent on preserving appearances and managing politics than actually telling the truth about America’s wars. Gosztola is not ready to make Petreaus a martyr to the cause.

Gosztola, who has been one of Kiriakou’s few links to the outside world writes: 

Petraeus should be prosecuted to send a message that leaks for personal gain are wrong. And, when elites feel disgusted or scoff at Petraeus’ prosecution [because they like to fawn over him], they can join the efforts of whistleblower advocates to end the use of the Espionage Act in leak prosecutions. They can help deal with the issue of rampant over-classification and push for changes in how the government goes about punishing people to “protect” the sanctity of American secrets.

The potential indictment of Petraeus raises a number of questions. While critics loathe him for his politicization, if not expansion, of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they resent, perhaps more, the power of the state to use government secrecy and the threat of prosecution to silence dissent and quash efforts at open information. They look at unpunished leaking that benefits the state and chafe at the inequities.

That leaves Petraeus’s detractors, who would normally be thrilled at the idea of his comeuppance, in the awkward position of having to defend the general against the government. Or not.

“The problem is the rank hypocrisy,” said Tom Drake, who of all people might want to see someone like Petreaus in the hot seat, “and the use of the Espionage Act to chill anybody that [the] powers-that-be deem necessary to quell with respect to source information.”

“It is the power of the surveillance state that threatens all of our individual privacy, movement, association, and beyond—including Petraeus.”

Drake is a stalwart of the civil-libertarian cause, but it will be interesting to see how many Johnny-come-latelies suddenly take up this banner to defend Petraeus. Because of this deft spin, and for political reasons we cannot even begin to disentangle, he can’t seem to lose—the Teflon general.

“No,” said one military source who has known Petraeus since West Point, “nothing will stick to Petraeus.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.



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