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Robert Grenier
Robert Grenier
Former CIA station chief Robert Grenier heads ERG Partners, a financial consultancy firm.

Petraeus: Victim of American infantilism

A feckless violation of the General's personal life has cost the US one of its top public servants.
Last Modified: 19 Nov 2012 09:17
General Petraeus resigned from being the head of the CIA for having an extramarital affair [GALLO/GETTY]

Bordel Militaire de Campagne: That was the rather bureaucratic term applied to official "supervised military bordellos" run by the French Army during much of the 20th century. Clear-eyed French defence officials of the First World War conceded that some proportion - and perhaps a large proportion - of the soldiers whom they deployed in expeditionary settings would seek to satisfy their carnal urges when and where they could, and that generally no good would come of it.

They considered that burgeoning prostitution, a hostile and alienated local populace, and rampant disease would undermine social support for the troops, and their fighting abilities. And so, exercising the rigorous logic characteristic of the culture which gave us Descartes, they reasoned that rather than wringing their hands, it would be better to set up medically-supervised institutions that would at least limit the negative results of behaviour which they could not otherwise hope to adequately control. 

Such an unsentimental application of moral reason is foreign to tender American sensibilities, but even puritanical US officials - after being forced during World War II to deal with the undisciplined appetites of conscript armies - eventually had to accommodate the fact that unless they took preventive measures, venereal disease would do to American armies what the Axis Powers could not.

Perhaps a bit closer to home, earnest American moralists of the current day who preach "abstinence-only" sex education in a sex-obsessed culture, and who have questionably passing acquaintance with relevant statistics concerning teen pregnancy, are being badly embarrassed by those more practical souls who supplement their preaching with ready access to contraceptives.

"In the absence of a crime and dereliction of professional responsibility, the matter should have ended there, with none of us the wiser, and a highly dedicated and competent public official still at work for his country."

I mention these as examples of the reasoned efforts of honest, clear-minded people to accommodate high-minded moral values to the practical realities of ordinary human behaviour. They stand in sharp contrast to the latest spate of puerile nonsense currently on such garish display in Washington.

One doubts that there is anywhere on the planet so remote as to have been spared the myriad details of the sex scandal that has claimed the career of General David Petraeus, most lately Director of the CIA. Still, it is worth briefly reviewing the core facts of the case, as they have been revealed to us: A woman in Tampa complains to the Federal Bureau of Investigation of threatening e-mails sent from an anonymous source. The FBI investigates, and finds them to have been sent by another woman residing in North Carolina. Scrutiny of this woman's e-mail reveals that she is involved in an illicit affair with General Petraeus. After a thorough investigation, including interviews with both Petraeus and the woman, it is determined that the offending e-mails neither meet the threshold for criminal harassment, nor has there been any security breach involving Director Petraeus's communications with his paramour.

CIA director Petraeus quits over extramarital affair 

That is where this investigation should have ended. It was appropriate that FBI officials, who might have been concerned about the future potential for blackmail of a senior US official with access to highly sensitive national security information (of whom, by the way, there are many thousands of others), should inform that person's superior (in Petraeus's case General James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence). In the natural course of these events, CIA security officials - whose duty it is to guard such confidential personal information zealously - would have insisted that General Petraeus make a clean breast of the matter to them in order to help ensure that he could not be suborned later by, say, a hostile intelligence service that might independently learn of his affair. In the absence of a crime and dereliction of professional responsibility, the matter should have ended there, with none of us the wiser and a highly dedicated and competent public official still at work for his country.

Yes, it would be better if all those many thousands of individuals entrusted with safekeeping of America's national security secrets - and the rest of us, as well - could be relied upon to lead unerringly virtuous lives, both public and private. It would be better if they never abused drink, felt financial difficulty, or succumbed to the lure of messy sexual dalliances. But the fact is that some of them will: It is an actuarial certainty. The US Intelligence Community has long understood this, and has mechanisms in place to deal with such peccadilloes privately, while limiting the scope for others to exploit the personal vulnerabilities thus revealed. This is only sensible.

But in the case of General Petraeus, none of what should have happened did happen. The FBI did not close down its investigation. Instead, it continued to search, we are told, "for some link between Petraeus and the harassing e-mails", the ones that they had already found not to be criminal. Why this degree of solicitousness on the part of these over-dedicated public servants? Well, let us not forget that a criminal case involving a high-profile figure is the sort of thing that gets faceless Justice Department bureaucrats noticed.

Such opportunities should not be passed up. Before long, FBI agents were sharing information concerning General Petraeus's private life quite liberally as their feckless "investigation" continued. By the time word reached General Clapper, one presumes that it was the certainty of imminent mass public mortification that induced him to suggest Petraeus resign. At that point the floodgates of salacious gossip, invariably sourced in a fully complicit media to "anonymous" government sources, opened wide - a perfect example of "your American tax dollars at work".

"The most celebrated military officer of his generation - a public servant of rare competence and dedication - has been unnecessarily hounded from public life."

The reader should not be fooled by the supposed trove of "classified documents" subsequently found in a raid of the former mistress' home. The FBI, stung by the nascent criticism of having thoroughly violated the privacy of two citizens who have committed no crimes and then driving a campaign of public opprobrium in the bargain, is hell-bent to find some wrongdoing to which it can point as justification.

The fact that a reserve Army officer who possesses security clearances and has spent years engaged in research in which she was being actively aided by many serving military personnel turns out to have official military documents in her possession should come as no great surprise. No one - even in the FBI - has had the temerity thus far to claim there is any substantive compromise of national security in any of this material. At the end of the day it is most likely that such violations of document protocol as may have been committed will merit only administrative sanction at best.

No one is coming out of this episode looking righteous: Not the protagonists, not the law enforcement community, not the pandering media, and not the scandal-obsessed public. But in the end, the most celebrated military officer of his generation - a public servant of rare competence and dedication - has been unnecessarily hounded from public life, and his continued service to the country has been lost. And his example will not be lost on the most senior public officials, who must know that, if ensnared in a compromising situation, any attempt to seek official help will very likely not protect them, but instead assure their public humiliation and private destruction.

Americans appear to be mightily enjoying this spectacle, whatever their protestations to the contrary. Theirs is a childish and hypocritical culture, as it has always been. But they should know: Infantilism comes at a price.

Former CIA station chief Robert Grenier heads ERG Partners, a financial consultancy firm.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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