WASHINGTON, November 9, 2012 - General David Petraeus resigned as CIA director today, saying he exercised poor judgment by having an extramarital affair.
Those who know Petraeus say he is extremely hard working, diligent and thoughtful. They say he is intelligent and insightful. They say he is a “family man” and that his family is very important to him.
That is why many were stunned by the revelation. While conspiracy theorists no doubt will claim the real reason for his resignation was the Benghazi failure, we no doubt will have all the tawdry details of his affair within the next few days.
Of course, it now appears Petraeus only came forward with the revelation after the FBI discovered evidence of the affair while conducting an investigation into whether his computer was compromised. Apparently, his admission was less about personal guilt and integrity than about coming forward after he was caught red-handed.
Extramarital affairs are sensitive issues for intelligence officers. Opponents who find out about the affair can use the information to blackmail the perpetrators into actions they would not otherwise perform. A ham-handed but effective approach is, “If you don’t want your wife to know about your girlfriend…”
Despite this vulnerability, the other dirty little secret in the CIA is that the clandestine service is rife with extramarital affairs and divorce. The culture is so prevalent that when one former Agency employee heard about Petraeus’ resignation, he quipped, “The guys at the Agency are saying, ‘what’s the big deal? Why did he resign over that?’ or they’re saying, ‘why did he admit it? Remember! Deny, deny, deny.”
Although the CIA does not maintain official records on the number of employees who divorce – at least not for public dissemination – former officers with access to the information say the number of divorces is “astonishingly high.” One former personnel officer reported that the number is higher than in any other government agency, including the military, “And probably more than most of them combined.” Last March, a CIA spokesman admitted that requirements of a CIA officer “take a toll on relationships.”
First of all, there’s the secrecy. Unless both spouses are Agency, the non-Agency spouse cannot know details of the Agency spouses work or co-workers. That means they are unable to share in successes or failures, offer guidance or even understand the sometimes grueling requirements of the job.
The Agency spouse is often drawn to other Agency employees who can share their experiences.
Then there’s the cover that the secrecy provides. Because clandestine officers often have to leave unexpectedly, without providing details to their spouses, with no defined return date, they have perfect cover to carry on an affair.
There are also long hours, long days and weeks, away from home and family. The absences can be difficult and lonely.
Finally, there’s also the culture of deceit. The fact is that operations officers learn to lie. They smoothly use pseudonyms and fabricated histories. They unflinchingly transform into another person with another background and spew details that are, quite simply, untrue. Additionally, the job of these officers is to recruit agents. Recruiting, winning, becomes a way of life. While the point of the job is to recruit foreign spies, officers often can’t resist trying their skills on neighbors, associates and dinner party guests. It becomes all about conquering.
Petraeus was not a case officer, but he appears to have succumbed to the worst parts of Agency culture.
Petraeus served under both Republicans and Democrats. While he was clearly career-oriented, and sometimes received criticism for his obvious career goals, he was also credited with refocusing the Iraq war effort and helping evolve military thinking. He was a leader in both the military and the intelligence community.
Petraeus was an exceptional military officer and intelligence leader. His fall from grace shows he also, as he said himself, at times exercised poor judgment. That admission must lead observers to wonder what else he may have misjudged.
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