The Petraeus affair: The ethics of a scandal


Central Intelligence Agency Director David Petraeus resigned on November 9, 2012, after admitting to an extramarital affair.


Mark Wilson

The affair that derailed CIA Director David Petraeus's illustrious career and led to his resignation on Friday reportedly began several months after his retirement from the Army in August 2011, according to retired US Army Col. Steve Boylan, who appeared on ABC's Good Morning America.

If any evidence were to surface to suggest that the affair began before he left the military, ABC News noted that Petraeus could face military prosecution for adultery.

But aside from that possibility, should the Petraeus affair have been a professional deal-breaker? GlobalPost takes a look at the ethical questions raised by the case. 

Was Petraeus stepping down "the right thing" to do?

Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), adultery is a punishable offense if a soldier's conduct is shown to be detrimental "to good order and discipline in the armed forces or was of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces," The Christian Science Monitor noted.

The CSM said that Petraeus, as a civilian, no longer fell under the UCMJ; but as the head of the CIA, an extramarital affair would leave him vulnerable to blackmail that could potentially threaten national security.

The FBI investigation initially did not involve Petraeus at all, but centered around threatening e-mails reportedly sent by his mistress, Paula Broadwell, to another woman, Jill Kelley. When the FBI looked into Broadwell's e-mail account, they learned of her affair with Petraeus.

An unidentified FBI employee took the information about Petraeus's affair to the Republicans in Congress, eventually telling House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, according to The New York Times.

"I was contacted by an FBI employee concerned that sensitive, classified information may have been compromised and made certain Director Mueller was aware of these serious allegations and the potential risk to our national security," Cantor told The Times.

According to the CSM, officials have said there is no evidence at this point that intelligence or national security secrets were exposed during the affair.

However, CBS News noted there is speculation about whether Broadwell had access to inside information through Petraeus, because of a video surfacing from late October that might indicate she was privy to details of the CIA's involvement in Libya. CBS News said it was unclear whether Broadwell was confusing information reported earlier on Fox News, or if she was relaying what she thought was inside information — perhaps obtained from Petraeus.

CNN reported that Petraeus told James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, about the affair on Nov. 6. Clapper then advised Petraeus to resign.

The Times said White House officials were told about Petraeus considering resignation on Nov. 7, and President Obama was informed on Nov. 8. Petraeus met with Obama on the eighth, and though Obama did not accept his resignation right away, he did accept it on Friday.

More on GlobalPost: Gen. Petraeus resigns over affair with Paula Broadwell

Should the public have been made aware of the affair?

Since the scandal broke, Congress has been asking why they were not made aware of the FBI's investigation into the matter. The Wall Street Journal noted, "FBI agents were pursuing what they thought was a potential cybercrime, or a breach of classified information."

According to Bloomberg, the FBI investigation included interviews with Petraeus and Broadwell, the last of which took place a week before Election Day. A primary reason that officials have given for not informing Congress of the probe was that there was no evidence of national security risks.

Lawmakers have aimed criticism at the FBI, Attorney General Eric Holder and the Obama administration. According to The Journal, Holder know about the email link to Petraeus as early as late summer.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on intelligence issues, said on Sunday that news of the affair "was like a lightning bolt," according to The Journal.

"This is something that could have had an effect on national security. I think we should have been told," she said, while appearing on Fox News Sunday.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Pete King, a Republican, said on Monday that the president was "owed" information on such affairs, according to The Hill blog.

"To have someone out there in such a sensitive position who perhaps the FBI thought could have been compromised or was under the scope of the FBI investigation who may or may not have been having an affair at the time, that certainly had to have been brought to the president or National Security Council," he said.

More on GlobalPost: Petraeus took mistress, Paula Broadwell, to Paris on government-funded trip: Report

Whose interest has it served to reveal the affair?

The timing of Petraeus' resignation and the news of the affair breaking when it did has led to some alternative theories and quite a bit of speculation.

The New Yorker wrote, "With the election two weeks away, and the CIA’s potential intelligence failures in the fatal ambush of American’s diplomats in Libya a campaign issue, Petraeus surely recognized that if he resigned, the scandal would shake the Obama Administration, perhaps giving more fodder to its Republican critics in what appeared to be an extremely close election."

Petraeus was also scheduled to testify in front of a House panel next week, leading to some suggestions that the timing of his resignation was suspect, according to CNN. As of now, the acting CIA Director Michael Morell will testify instead, though lawmakers from both sides of the aisle would still like Petraeus to testify.

According to CBS News, Petraeus visited Libya near the end of October and called several members of Congress to tell them that surveillance videos of the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi supported the theory of an element of spontaneity in the attack, a theory initially put forward by the Obama administration.

King, the Republican House Homeland Security Committee Chairman, said on Monday, "I strongly believe David Petraeus has to be a witness at that hearing, if not this week then the weeks after," according to The Hill blog.

As for revealing the affair, The Journal reported that "Petraeus believed he should resign because the CIA would have viewed a lower-level employee engaged in an affair to be improper and that the director should set an example by publicly accepting responsibility, according to a person familiar with the events."

More on GlobalPost: Jill Kelley: Who is she?