Marc Ambinder

5 thoughts about the Petraeus affair we're not supposed to think

The former CIA director's behavior was actually quite logical. Like many men, he cheated on his wife with someone around him — then tried to hide it

1. This is an easy story to understand. The Daily Show's Jon Stewart had a great summary of it last night, and here is mine: A powerful man has an affair with a woman who got jealous of another woman's Facebook postings and sent vaguely worded emails ordering her to step back from her man. The other woman contacted an FBI agent, her friend, who helped start an investigation that was quickly taken out of his hands because he seemed too closely intertwined with the complainant; the investigation was treated carefully by the FBI once the link to the sitting CIA director was identified as a paramour. Predictable consequences ensued; he was asked to resign because the revelation of his behavior would undermine the standing of the U.S intelligence community in the world and did not set a good example for his subordinate. Also, if you think about David Petraeus, a man of rectitude and honor, and you think about his long-forgiving wife, Holly (whose forbearance was always cited as the reason Petraeus did not retire), and then you think about Petraeus having sex with Paula Broadwell, you are either titillated, somewhat disgusted, or intrigued. Safe to assume that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was disgusted. Disgust is a powerful motivator.

2. This is not about Benghazi. Petraeus' resignation will not prevent him from testifying to Congress about Benghazi, even though he wants to avoid testifying in order to avoid embarrassment. Every report that links his resignation to Benghazi is predicated on the assumption that the president of the United States decided to blackmail the CIA director. There is nothing anywhere to support that assertion. 

3. Petraeus' behavior was logical. Like many, but not most, men, he cheated on his wife. He tried to hide it. He did not voluntarily disclose his transgression to superiors or colleagues. He became embarrassed when the affair was exposed and resigned. He tried to hold on to his job because there is no reason to believe that his performance as CIA director would be hurt by the affair itself; instead, he knew that its revelation would do the damage. His choice of Paula Broadwell was logical. She was around him,  known to him and trusted him, and had a security clearance. If Petraeus were to have an affair with anyone, and if his having an affair was an order from a deity, you'd kind of want him to have it with someone who knows him. 

4. The Justice Department and the CIA were right not to notify Congress. By law, the intelligence committees are supposed to be notified in the event of a significant intelligence community action or analysis. They might want to stretch the definition to include the sex life of the director, but absent any evidence that national security was harmed, the current understanding doesn't apply. Be honest, Congress. Y'all know this would have leaked the moment it was briefed to you. And what exactly did you want to be briefed on? The fact of the affair? The investigation into the emails? What would Congress have done?  

5. We are conflicted about Petraeus' behavior. It's fashionable to say that his sex life should not matter, and strictly speaking, as I wrote above, it has no bearing on his job. Too many CIA directors have had affairs; too many powerful people, too many friends, neighbors and siblings, too many of us. We know we are capable of compartmentalizing these things rather well. And we consider ourselves sufficiently evolved to have an enlightened view about human sexuality. But we are so fascinated by this story because, deep down, we remain ashamed of our sexuality, and we don't like it when we can't control it, and we tend to keep even our least sexy sexy thoughts private, and it's icky to see someone else's be involuntarily exposed. We sympathize with both Petraeus' sexual instincts as well as his inability to live up to his own moral code and live faithfully to the vows of his marriage (assuming his marriage was not open). 

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