David Petraeus Will Not Go Away And Why Americans Should Be Cautious

Even after being forced to resign from the CIA and prosecuted for mishandling classified information, David Petraeus appears unwilling to avoid the limelight.

“Whenever a man has cast a longing eye on offices, a rottenness begins in his conduct.” — Thomas Jefferson

It is unclear if retired Army General David Petraeus has set his sights on public office; but it is absolutely clear that he wants nothing more than to remain in the public eye. Two months ago Michael M. O’Brien did marvelous job of encapsulating the true intentions of Petraeus: “he wanted to be a politician when he was being paid to be an army officer.”

At this point it is beyond question that Petraeus is a politician, in the worst sense of the word. He is willing to distort reality into any narrative that serves his ultimate purpose: the advancement of David Petraeus.

Resignation from the CIA and Criminal Conviction

Even before ending his extraordinary career in the Army, Petraeus was unanimously confirmed to be the Director of the CIA. He assumed duties at the CIA in September 2011, a position he would not hold for long. By November 2012 Petraeus resigned from the CIA because of an FBI investigation into his mishandling of classified information, which uncovered his extramarital affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell.

As I previously argued, Petraeus received an extraordinarily-lenient punishment for his criminal acts. For reasons unexplained, the Department of Justice decided to forgo charging Petraeus with lying to FBI agents, though during his plea Petraeus makes clear that he knowingly provided “false statements to the Federal Bureaus of Investigation” and that he knew those false statements were a “violation of law.”

His plea agreement, for many, only reinforces the view that there exists a double standard of justice for senior officials. But in fairness to Petraeus, he had tremendous letter of support submitted to the court before sentencing.

The judge federal judge who sentenced Petraeus, unsealed documents revealing those who submitted letters on his behalf. Among those submitting letters of support were Senators Lindsey Graham and Diane Feinstein, former prime minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair, and numerous senior military officers. That is an impressive cavalcade of Petraeus supporters, which undoubtedly lead to Petraeus receiving no jail time.

Some, such as Dr. James Joyner, have argued persuasively for leniency in Petraeus’s criminal prosecution. That does not, ipso facto, translate into trusting Petraeus. In fact, I argue to the contrary: Petraeus should never again be trusted.

Discretion and the Public Spotlight

Decorum, contrition, or a modicum of self-awareness, should have guided Petraeus out of the limelight. He should have adhered to the custom among former presidents to remain mute about successors and to limit public appearances.

Take the case of President Richard Nixon, a man who like Petraeus resigned in disgrace, who shunned public statements for years after resigning his presidency. Nixon resigned in August 1974 and refrained from any public interviews until the 1977 interviews with David Frost, as memorialized in the film Frost/Nixon.

By contrast, Petraeus resigned as Director of the CIA in November 2012 and almost immediately thrust himself back into the public eye. This occurred while he was still under investigation for mishandling classified information.

By April 2013, a scant six months after resigning his position with the CIA, Petraeus was already implementing a calculated scheme to rehabilitate his public image. The scheme was characterized, by a Petraeus confidant, as “devised like the invasion of Iraq.” According to those in the Petraeus camp, “he’s been thinking hard about how to manage is comeback, his image, and his new role.”

Near the end of the BuzzFeed article, an unnamed “close friend” of Petraeus predicted that he would “keep his public focus on veterans and education and to offer military advice behind the scenes.” The unnamed close friend also predicted that if Petraeus was asked for his advice on military matters, “I doubt we would hear anything of those from him. It’s just not his style.” These predictions were proven to be far off the mark.

Remaining in the Public Eye

In the months since Petraeus pleaded guilty to mishandling classified materials in March 2015, and his subsequent sentence of two-years of probation and a fine of $100,000, he has almost continuously remained in the public spotlight. During his many interviews, Petraeus has revealed his opinions on a multitude of military matters. Apparently, it is his style.

As early as two weeks after his guilty plea, it was confirmed that Petraeus had been continuously advising the White House on military matters. My argument does not take issue with President Obama’s choice to listen to Petraeus. Nor do I take issue with Petraeus serving on the board of KKR & Co or engaging in public speaking, for which he receives a fee of $130,000 per speech according to SpeakerPedia.

Even after his criminal conviction Petraeus should be free to earn a living. My point of disagreement with Petraeus is his almost-obsessive need to remain in the limelight, and his underlying motives for his ceaseless public appearances.

Take his 1 June interview with the BBC, which is almost-comically characterized as a “rare interview,” wherein Petraeus counters the recent statement by the Secretary of Defense that Iraqi troops lack a “will to fight.” Petraeus contends, “During the surge and in the years after the surge, Iraqi forces fought and died for their country at vastly higher numbers than did US and coalition forces. We know that they can fight.”

Petraeus is both praising the surge, which he commanded, and publicly undermining Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. Why did Petraeus need to question Carter in the press? As previously reported Petraeus already has the ear of the White House.

His motive is clear: the advancement of David Petraeus. It should also be noted that there was no mention of veterans or education in the BBC interview, as had been predicted by his close friend.

A fortnight after his BBC interview, Petraeus appeared on Wall Street Week, to discuss his path to the Army, terrorism, cyber security, and ISIS. A 30-minute televised interview wherein he critiques U.S. military policies. Again, the close friend’s prediction that any military advice by Petraeus would be “behind the scenes” was dead wrong.

His True Intentions

Petraeus’s almost obsessive need to remain in the public eye revels much about his character. Similarly, his intentional mishandling of classified information and lying to FBI agents, reveals some of his underlying motivations and character. The classified materials were shared with his personal biographer, and mistress, Paula Broadwell, for inclusion in biography All In: The Education of General David Petraeus.

It was not as though he was revealing classified information to uncover government corruption or some other laudable goal. He revealed classified information to be included in his biography for his own aggrandizement.

Similarly, while he sat behind his desk as Director of the CIA and lied to FBI agents, he again was seeking to protect his legacy and cover for his mistress and biographer. These are the actions of one concerned only with his own advancement and legacy.

The Future of Petraeus

I have neither served under Petraeus, nor met him, nor heard him speak publicly. My only knowledge of Petraeus comes from press reports. With Petraeus, I contend this is an advantage, for his Rasputin-like abilities cloud the judgment of heads of state, senators, and senior military officers.

This undoubtedly served him well during his military career, by inspiring unquestioning devotion from his subordinates. But when attempting to divine his intentions, a degree of detachment is necessary.

All of his actions, after his resignation and criminal conviction, indicate that Petraeus has never truly internalized any of his violations of the public trust. Rather he has viewed this episode of his life as an obstacle to overcome, as though it were a rope to climb or a log to hurdle at Ranger School.

As his past behavior is the best predictor of his future behavior, it is clear that Petraeus will do anything necessary, including blatant lies, to advance his personal agenda. This, in my opinion, is a tendency we should absolutely avoid in our elected officials.

It is beyond question that David Petraeus served his country and provided outstanding leadership during some of our darkest days. That does not, however, grant him a free pass for later criminal acts. Nor does it place his intentions beyond scrutiny.

Americans should forever view the actions of Petraeus with a jaundiced eye. We can never know if he is being honest, or if like his interviews with FBI agents, he is telling his version of the truth, a version that continues to advance his personal agenda at any cost. Anyone so obsessed with his own advancement, the truth be damned, is unworthy of the public’s trust.

When David Petraeus launches his next foray into public office, the American people will be well served to remember his past. He is, in my opinion, unworthy of your trust.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated James W. Weirick’s story.