The real Petraeus scandals

I enjoy a good sex scandal as much as the next person. It is like watching a film or reading a novel, with a plot that is usually easy to follow, involving emotions and motivations that are easy to understand, and that can be viewed dispassionately because it does not affect one personally. What is surprising in real–life sex scandals is the amount of attention paid to the minutest details of something that usually has no serious consequences for anyone other than those actually involved. Of course, reasons will be trumped up (National security! Abuse of power! Need to uphold standards!) to give all this prurient probing a veneer of journalistic respectability.

Michael Hastings at Buzzfeed, Robert Wright at The Atlantic, and Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian get beyond the titillating details of the events surrounding David Petraeus and look at the real scandals that have been revealed.

Hastings points out how Petraues has always been a ambitious careerist and a master manipulator, and that his genius as a strategist was not on the battlefield but in the way he managed to get the media and politicians to fawn over him.

Until this weekend, Petraeus had been incredibly successful in making the public think he was a man of great integrity and honor, among other things. Most of the stories written about him fall under what we hacks in the media like to call “a blow job”. Vanity Fair. The New Yorker. The New York Times. The Washington Post. Time. Newsweek. In total, all the profiles, stage-managed and controlled by the Pentagon’s multimillion dollar public relations apparatus, built up an unrealistic and superhuman myth around the general that, in the end, did not do Petraeus or the public any favors.

How did Petraeus get away with all this for so long? Well, his first affair — and one that matters so much more than the fact that he was sleeping with a female or two — was with the media.

He points out that in their desire to salvage what they can of Petraeus’s reputation, the women in this story are being savaged by the media.

And Broadwell, too, is about to get slandered in a way no woman deserves. She’s the Pentagon’s Monica Lewinksy — and, despite Team Petraeus’ much advertised lip service to courage and integrity, it didn’t take long for his allies to swarm the press with anonymous quotes smearing the West Point graduate and married mother of two: that she wore “tight clothes,” as The Washington Post reported, or that she had her “claws in him.” In other words, how could Old Dave have resisted that slut’s charms?

But Petraeus’ crash is more significant than the latest nonsense sex scandal. As President Obama says, our decade of war is coming to an end. The reputations of the men who were intimately involved in these years of foreign misadventure, where we tortured and supported torture, armed death squads, conducted nightly assassinations, killed innocents, and enabled corruption on an unbelievable scale, lie in tatters. McChrystal, Caldwell, and now Petraeus — the era of the celebrity general is over.

As Wright says, when president Obama named David Petraeus as its head, we saw the institutionalization of the CIA as the sixth military arm of the US. It is now conducting warfare since it is operating the drones program. The CIA has a long history of inciting the military and paramilitary forces of other countries and waging proxy wars and killing supposed enemies of the US. But openly conducting wars is a new thing. The reason this is problematic is that there is usually some civilian oversight and accountability of the armed forces. There is a chain of command and rules that can be appealed to when something goes wrong.

With the CIA there are no such safeguards. They operate in secrecy and are accountable to no one. In fact, they do not even officially acknowledge their role in, or the existence of, the drone program, although this is hardly a secret, especially to those at the receiving end of its lethal weapons. As Wright says, this shift in its official mission from being primarily an intelligence gathering operation should raises serious concerns.

The militarization of the CIA raises various questions. For example, if the CIA is psychologically invested in a particular form of warfare–and derives part of its budget from that kind of warfare–can it be trusted to impartially assess the consequences, both positive and negative, direct and indirect?

The drone killings program should be Obama’s greatest shame and carries with it huge dangers that are being ignored. As Wright says:

At the risk of raising a question that is by custom excluded from discussion of American foreign policy: What if other nations behaved as we do? What if they started firing drones into countries that house people they’d rather were dead? Couldn’t this get kind of out of control? Shouldn’t the U.S. be at least thinking about trying to establish a global norm against this sort of thing (except, conceivably, under well-defined circumstances that have a clear basis in international law)?

One would hope that such questions might be raised with the attention now being paid to the CIA as a result of the sex scandal, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Meanwhile Glenn Greenwald points out that the way this scandal unraveled reveals the sweeping privacy invading powers that the Obama administration now has put at the fingertips of its surveillance agencies and which can be used to target anyone in their sights for whatever reason. Reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin had an excellent series of articles in the Washington Post in 2010 of how the National Security State has got out of control and now essentially spies on everyone all the time. Greenwald says the Petraeus scandal gives one example of its powers.

So all based on a handful of rather unremarkable emails sent to a woman fortunate enough to have a friend at the FBI, the FBI traced all of Broadwell’s physical locations, learned of all the accounts she uses, ended up reading all of her emails, investigated the identity of her anonymous lover (who turned out to be Petraeus), and then possibly read his emails as well. They dug around in all of this without any evidence of any real crime – at most, they had a case of “cyber-harassment” more benign than what regularly appears in my email inbox and that of countless of other people – and, in large part, without the need for any warrant from a court.

So not only did the FBI – again, all without any real evidence of a crime – trace the locations and identity of Broadwell and Petreaus, and read through Broadwell’s emails (and possibly Petraeus’), but they also got their hands on and read through 20,000-30,000 pages of emails between Gen. Allen and Kelley.

This is a surveillance state run amok. It also highlights how any remnants of internet anonymity have been all but obliterated by the union between the state and technology companies.

Greenwald manages to find a small silver lining in the whole sordid affair:

But, as unwarranted and invasive as this all is, there is some sweet justice in having the stars of America’s national security state destroyed by the very surveillance system which they implemented and over which they preside. As Trevor Timm of the Electronic Frontier Foundation put it this morning: “Who knew the key to stopping the Surveillance State was to just wait until it got so big that it ate itself?”

It is usually the case that abuses of state power become a source for concern and opposition only when they begin to subsume the elites who are responsible for those abuses.

In 2007, the group Privacy International looked at the levels of surveillance and privacy protection in 47 countries and produced this graphic that compares them, ranging from the worst (“Endemic surveillance societies”) to the best (“Consistently upholds human rights standards”).

Guess how the US fares? It should come as no surprise that it is in the worst category, along with Russia, China, the UK, Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia.

But of course, there will be little discussion about any of the issues raised by Hastings or Wright or Greenwald. Why bother when we can talk about who did what with whom?


  1. jb says

    quote; “It is usually the case that abuses of state power become a source for concern and opposition only when they begin to subsume the elites who are responsible for those abuses.”

    Exactly. Isn’t this the same thing that marked the end of the Inquisition? Once the elites started getting tortured to death, and their fortunes stolen, the whole thing kinda died….

  2. ttch says

    The drone program’s targeting of all military-aged males in insurgent areas (and “double-tapping” civilian rescuers) is not only a series of war crimes but is also roughly equivalent to the body-count metric that worked so well in Vietnam.

    America has never had a realistic plan to win in Afghanistan. All we can do is delay our defeat, spending more hundreds of billions of dollars we don’t have–and hundreds more American lives–to prop up a corrupt and unpopular Afghan government.

    We could just proclaim victory and withdraw, with the outcome disappearing from U.S. front pages–but taxpayers might consider that to be the end of the War on Terror which of course cannot be allowed to end.

  3. Crudely Wrott says

    I’m reminded of a joke that I first heard roughly fifty years ago about a new specie of bird that had just been discovered in some remote place. I think it was called a foo-bird.

    The foo-bird, on occasion, displays a most unusual and unfortunate behavior. Flying high above the ground it begins to soar in a large, circular pattern. As time passes it increases its speed and reduces the radius of its circular flight path.

    This process of flying faster and faster in ever smaller circles continues until, ultimately, it flies right up its own asshole.

  4. slc1 says

    Actually, despite the fact that Patraeus has retired from the military, he is still subject to the military code of conduct in which extramarital affairs are not permitted (by the way, Ms. Boardwell is also married so both participants in this sordid affair were cheating on their spouses). This could subject him to a general court martial and possibly incarceration so it ain’t a throwaway.

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