The sudden departure of a compromised CIA director hasn’t been an episode of Showtime’s espionage drama Homeland, but it could be.
The story of David Petraeus’s resignation is evolving, and we may know more soon enough. But for now, he is said to have resigned because he committed marital infidelity in a way that could have exposed the U.S. to harm. Greta van Susteren of Fox News says his jobs as a general and CIA director made him “very vulnerable to blackmail from those with very bad intentions against the United States.”
Fair enough, but many commentators took an entirely different line 15 years ago when President Bill Clinton, who had access to all of our nation’s secrets, was caught having an affair with an intern named Monica Lewinsky. The Starr Report, released in September 1998, revealed that Clinton told Lewinsky that “he suspected that a foreign embassy was tapping his telephones, and he proposed cover stories” if they were ever questioned about their relationship.
When she left the White House, Lewinsky got a cushy Pentagon job, complete with a security clearance. Later, after Lewinsky threatened to expose the relationship, Clinton accepted her demand for a well-paying job in Manhattan and then asked a friend, Vernon Jordan, to make the contacts. Lewinsky told her then-confidante Linda Tripp that the president owed her something special: “I don’t want to have to work for this position. I just want it to be given to me.” But none of this brought down Clinton, who was acquitted by the Senate in a impeachment trial for having committed perjury before a federal judge.
Foreign governments must be chuckling at the thought that the world’s superpower has been consumed with the Petraeus scandal. Former Financial Times editor Eamonn Fingleton points out on the Forbes website: “Similarly ‘mission critical’ officials in other nations are not similarly vulnerable. This applies in spades in East Asia. Whether we are talking about China, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, or any other nations of the Confucian world, a man’s sexual behavior is — within large limits — not a national security issue. It is simply taken for granted that ‘boys will be boys.’” In addition, governments in most of those nations — unlike the U.S. government — spy on their officials and usually know all there is about them. Other nations also often know about the personal vulnerabilities of U.S. officials long before our own government does.
It’s pretty clear that unless there were other factors involved, Petraeus could have kept his job if he had simply alerted someone at the CIA. Justice Department officials have concluded that there will no charges against Petraeus or his mistress, Paula Broadwell, and that there was no breach of national security.
“Petraeus could have gone to the CIA’s security chief and said, ‘I’m having an affair with an American citizen.’ And that would have been the end of it,” former undercover CIA officer Bob Baer told Politico. As long as such relationships are reported, they almost never lead to action by the CIA. After all, the agency is filled with people who travel frequently, are skilled in the arts of subterfuge, and share little about their work life with their family.
But the fact of the matter is that Petraeus did try to keep his affair a secret, and he thus exposed himself to blackmail. He also apparently managed to anger his mistress enough that she sent threatening e-mails to a State Department employee she suspected of competing for his affections. A sticky wicket indeed.
The Code of Federal Regulations (Title 32, Chapter 1, Part 147) makes clear that sexual behavior is a security concern. A person may lose a security clearance for “personal conduct or concealment of information that may increase an individual’s vulnerability to coercion, exploitation, or duress, such as engaging in activities which, if known, may affect the person’s personal, professional, or community standing or render the person susceptible to blackmail.” In August 1995, that regulation was strengthened by Executive Order 12968. It stated that individuals eligible for access to classified material must have a record of “strength of character, truthfulness, honesty, reliability, discretion and sound judgment, as well as freedom from conflicting allegiances and potential for coercion.” The man who issued that Executive Order was none other than President Bill Clinton. A mere three months later he began his affair with Monica Lewinsky, a chatty 22-year-old who eventually spilled the beans to eleven other people.
I think it was proper for General Petraues to resign his position, even based only on the facts we know. But we need a national debate on a consistent standard that we hold our high officials to. Is it the Petraeus standard, by which officials with access to secrets must adhere to a zero-tolerance policy? Or is it the Clinton standard, by which egregious breaches of security go unpunished?