Petraeus Affair: Paula Broadwell Did Not Do Anything Illegal, But Petraeus Was Right to Resign


With the recent resignation of retired general and CIA director David Petraeus, many questions have arisen. While there are too many questions and far too little information to answer them all, there is enough information to at least begin to develop an understanding of some of the issues involved. I'll look at two particular issues: 1) why General Petraeus was right to resign, and 2) why the FBI was so cautious about informing policymakers about the affair once it had been discovered.

1. Petraeus Was Right To Step Down: For those in the intelligence community, keeping state secrets and finding those of other states and non-state actors is part of the job, but keeping your own secrets is a fast track to finding a new job. The reason is rather simple: others can use secrets as leverage. In regards to sexual relationships, secret affairs can in fact be active attempts by other countries to blackmail an agent (the “honeypot”) or could just be discovered by others and then used as blackmail.

Neither the CIA nor other intelligence agencies are in the market of telling its employees whom they can sleep with. Just like all other people, some of them tend to have affairs as well. What is not generally acceptable, however, is not telling the agency about the affair, creating a potential security risk. While it has become clear that this affair did not lead to any security risk, it still would be a very poor example to have the director of the CIA keeping this relationship a secret for so long and having no resulting consequences, when lower-level employees have been punished for similar actions.

2. The FBI’s Precarious Position: Much has been made about the timing of the resignation and the lack of notice given to policymakers on the House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence, with Intelligence Committee chairwoman Senator Diane Feinstein stating that the committees should have been informed of the investigation and would “absolutely” demand an explanation.

However, as the article linked above notes, the facts of the investigation left the FBI in a very precarious situation. While details remain limited, the fact is that Petraeus was not a focus of the investigation, with the actual focus being the harassing emails of his lover, Paula Broadwell, to a State Department employee. The affair was discovered because of a concern that Petraeus’ personal email account had been compromised, a legitimate national security concern that was later disproven. No charges were brought against Broadwell or Petraeus because, frankly, neither did anything legally wrong.

On top of all this is the FBI’s past role in maintaining secret files on public figures during J. Edgar Hoover’s reign. To this day, the FBI remains very conscious about this black mark on its history and does not want to be seen as re-hashing a previous role as the discoverer of dirty secrets.

I’m not going to say whether the decision by the FBI to wait until it did to notify Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was the right one, and members of Congress have a right to their opinions on this issue. That being said, I find it understandable why the FBI proceeded the way it did. Legally, neither Petraeus nor Broadwell did anything wrong, so there were no charges to file, and the FBI does not actively try to investigate the personal lives of policymakers. With this knowledge, it seems at least explainable that the FBI waited until the investigation was closed until notifying anyone, and then did so in a quiet way to the DNI to allow him and the White House to handle the situation in the way they deemed fit.