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Is Philandering A Security Concern?

In the shadow of L’Affaire Petraeus, the New York Times ran an op-ed by Steven Kinzer which adds some needed perspective to much of the overheated media coverage these days. Kinzer is the author of an upcoming book on the Dulles brothers, the younger of whom, Allen, was the head of the CIA from 1953 to 1961.

Allen Dulles is rightly revered in the Agency as one of its most important directors. He also was a notorious womanizer and adulterer. Kinzer’s essay is worth reading in full to get a flavor of just how flagrant Dulles’ dalliances were. One episode, however, stands out as particularly relevant in today’s context:

Another of Dulles’s conquests, according to several accounts, was Queen Frederika of Greece. In 1958 she came to the United States on a tour with her son, the future King Constantine II, and just as her trip was about to end, she announced without explanation that she would stay for another week.

She came to Washington, discussed “spiritual values” with President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Oval Office and then visited Dulles at C.I.A. headquarters.

They had been alone in his office for nearly an hour when an aide knocked. Hearing no response, he entered. He found the office empty, but heard noises from the adjoining dressing room. Later Dulles and the queen emerged.

General Petraeus’ mistress was a graduate student and an Army Reserve officer. Dulles had at least a hundred mistresses, among whom was the queen of a foreign though allied power. Yet we’re treating Petraeus’ case as potentially having far-reaching national security implications, whereas Dulles was carrying on like this at the height of the Cold War, when the stakes were incomparably higher.

Marital fidelity is an important virtue, but nobody has all the virtues and it is difficult to argue that this is the one “must have” virtue that trumps everything else. Despite having an illegitimate child, Grover Cleveland was a pretty good president, and if Bill Clinton had been constitutionally eligible, voters would probably have preferred him to both candidates in any of the elections since 2000.

The Petraeus case is more complicated. While there are some reports suggesting that General Petraeus’ mistress Paula Broadwell may have had access to documents for which she was not cleared, and may have even referred to secrets at a recent talk she gave, it’s not yet clear whether she had gained access to any of this through her affair with Petraeus. If in fact it’s revealed that Petraeus himself was the source of these leaks, he will have made a grave error of judgment. Losing his security clearance and his job over something like that would be warranted.

But if not, would the furore simply be a case of addled puritanism run amok, and have we done ourselves a great disservice by depriving the nation of an important leader with vital experience in trying times?

Not necessarily. It turns out that the question isn’t merely whether David Petraeus cheated on his wife, and it’s more complicated than whether he cheated on the American people by whispering national security secrets in the boudoir. Even if he isn’t telling her security secrets, the Director of Central Intelligence should not be having an affair with a working reporter in his field of activity. That in itself is an error of judgment that merits and in all but the most exceptional of circumstances demands immediate dismissal.

A reporter perceived as having a special relationship with the CIA director will likely be granted access by subordinates eager to stay on the good side of their chief, and afraid that their names will come up in the pillow talk. It is unprofessional and unethical to put ones subordinates in this position and it creates a needless security risk. For this there is no excuse. It is also clear that even if no actual information is obtained in this way, any reporting the lover does will come to be tainted by the suspicion that she has had special access. David Petraeus betrayed his wife and family when he broke his marriage vows; he betrayed the rest of us when he chose such an inappropriate partner and carried on the affair in the midst of his professional world.

David Petraeus did indeed have an obligation to resign. President Obama had the option to keep him on if the national interest required it; that is a judgement call and we do not have the information needed to second guess him on that. But absent a compelling national interest rationale for at least temporarily keeping the director in place, the President made the right decision to let him go.

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