Shadows Cast By the Petraeus Scandal

I feel the same way about David Petraeus’ infidelities as I felt about President Clinton’s: Unless hypocrisy is involved (as when Speaker Gingrich pushed to impeach Clinton while carrying on an affair himself), I’m content to let public figures have messy private lives. As much as I love gossip, let’s not pretend it’s news.

But if the media spotlight trained on General Petraeus’ bed isn’t illuminating anything I consider important, it has cast a few interesting shadows. The Onion called attention to one: Nation Horrified To Learn About War In Afghanistan While Reading Up On Petraeus Sex Scandal. Let’s look at a few others.

The surveillance state is eating its own. In the post-privacy era of the Internet and the Patriot Act, the FBI has become the Eye of Sauron: Once its attention has been drawn to you, it will soon know your secrets and the secrets of all your associates, whether or not anyone has committed a crime.

Glenn Greenwald lays out just how much investigation resulted from just how little probable cause: A friend of an FBI agent gets some mildly disturbing anonymous emails, and before you know it (and apparently without needing any warrants), the FBI is reading personal messages of the head of the CIA and his successor four-star general in Afghanistan. And when the agent decides that his superiors aren’t doing enough with the dirt they’re turning up, he takes it to the administration’s enemies in Congress. Greenwald sums up:

Based on what is known, what is most disturbing about the whole Petraeus scandal is not the sexual activities that it revealed, but the wildly out-of-control government surveillance powers which enabled these revelations. What requires investigation here is not Petraeus and [General John] Allen and their various sexual partners but the FBI and the whole sprawling, unaccountable surveillance system that has been built.

Rachel Maddow wonders what J. Edgar Hoover could have done with this kind of power, and raises a worthy question: Once politically embarrassing dirt has been dug up, who decides who gets to see it? Congress is complaining about being uninformed, but should it have been informed?

Mother Jones’ Adam Serwer details just how unprotected anyone’s online privacy is: Whatever you store “in the cloud” — emails, drafts of documents, pictures — is available to the government with the permission of Google or Yahoo or whoever the cloud-tender happens to be.

The Constitution protects you from unreasonable search and seizure by the government. It doesn’t stop third parties from sharing personal information you willingly give them. … If you had a bunch of old letters in a worn shoebox under your bed, the FBI would need a warrant to get them. But if those same letters are online, in your password-protected email account, and they’re more than six months old, the FBI doesn’t need a warrant to take a peek.

(If you really want to get nerdy about the legal side of this, read the EFF’s email privacy primer.)

Serwer thinks the Petraeus scandal is our best chance to restore some meaningful restraints:

Being the head of the CIA or a decorated war veteran didn’t entitle Petraeus to any more privacy than the average American. But if the ruin of someone as high-ranking and well-regarded as Petraeus can’t get Congress thinking about reining in the surveillance state, it may never happen.

And Greenwald agrees:

there is some sweet justice in having the stars of America’s national security state destroyed by the very surveillance system which they implemented and over which they preside. As Trevor Timm of the Electronic Frontier Foundation put it this morning: “Who knew the key to stopping the Surveillance State was to just wait until it got so big that it ate itself?”

It is usually the case that abuses of state power become a source for concern and opposition only when they begin to subsume the elites who are responsible for those abuses.

The public usually accepts abusable power as long as most people can draw a bright line between themselves and the victims. As long as the abused are just Muslims or “extremists” or other stigmatized minorities, the rest of us can pretend there’s no real problem. But if David Petraeus can go down, who is safe?

Why does “morality” always mean “sex”? Americans ought to be having lots of debates over the morality of our foreign policy and the leaders who carry it out. Who they are sleeping with should be far down that list.

Esquire’s Tom Junod says that “the real Petraeus scandal” is about “transform[ing] the CIA into a paramilitary organization distinctive for its lethality and lack of accountability”.

Petraeus was the primary driver of a policy that has established killing as the option of first resort in the war against Al-Qaeda and its proxies. He did not institute the data-driven “signature strikes” that have become the CIA’s specialty, but he clashed with the State Department over them, and he was relentless in his efforts to make sure that the inherently expansive Lethal Presidency kept expanding. The revelation that President Obama managed a “kill list” from the Oval Office rightly drew a great deal of attention; but just as remarkable were the killings in which the President had no direct hand.

Atlantic’s Robert Wright raises similar questions:

What if other nations behaved as we do? What if they started firing drones into countries that house people they’d rather were dead? Couldn’t this get kind of out of control? Shouldn’t the U.S. be at least thinking about trying to establish a global norm against this sort of thing (except, conceivably, under well-defined circumstances that have a clear basis in international law)?

Yeah, I know Holly Petraeus is “furious“, as she has every right to be. But what about the Pakistani mothers whose innocent children have died in CIA drone attacks that Petraeus ordered? They’re probably pretty pissed too.

The Petraeus fog machine. Why did we have such a superhuman view of Petraeus to begin with? The Week asks: “Did the Media Fall for General Petraeus’ Hype?” and strongly implies the answer is yes. Wired’s Spencer Ackerman confessed: “How I Was Drawn Into the Cult of David Petraeus“.

Petraeus is just about the only commander who improved his image in Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither war is an American success story, so any credit given to one general comes at the expense of the others, who are left holding the bag for the overall disappointment.

How did he manage that? Maybe it’s time to take another look at the rare Petraeus-criticizing articles, like Michael Hastings’ “The Legend of David Petraeus” in last January’s Rolling Stone. (“The genius of David Petraeus has always been his masterful manipulation of the media.”) Or read Rep. Jan Schakowsky’s account of a 2007 trip to Iraq where congressmen were propagandized to support the Surge.

And there is a hypocrisy angle. Petraeus was a proponent of the Pentagon’s “spiritual fitness” push, which (while carefully framed as non-religious or non-sectarian in theory) in practice means Christian evangelism in the military. (Non-Christian or insufficiently Christian soldiers are suspect, preaches one high-ranking Army chaplain, because “the unsaved have no realization of their unfortunate alliance with evil.”)

Petraeus wrote a prominent blurb for the book Under Orders: a spiritual handbook for military personnel by Army chaplain Lt. Col. William McCoy. (Order 3: “Believe in God.”) The Army’s spiritual fitness test and Under Orders both strongly imply that the non-religious can’t be a good soldiers or reliable team members of any sort.

Chris Rodda may be a bit too gleeful in Petraeus’ downfall, but expresses a sentiment that I (as a fellow unfortunate ally of evil) can’t help but share: “Hey, General Petraeus, how’s that spiritual fitness stuff working out for you?”

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  • Irvin  On February 8, 2013 at 8:21 pm

    Hello just wanted to give you a quick heads up.
    The text in your article seem to be running off the screen in Safari.
    I’m not sure if this is a formatting issue or something to do with internet browser compatibility but I figured I’d post to let you
    know. The style and design look great though! Hope you get the problem solved soon.

    • weeklysift  On February 9, 2013 at 7:37 am

      Whatever the problem was, it looks fixed now when I use Safari.


  • By Thoughts and Actions « The Weekly Sift on November 19, 2012 at 11:24 am

    […] I can’t convince myself that Petraeus’ sex life has any news value at all. But the way the story is shaking out is illuminating several interesting side issues (like how invasive the FBI can be or the bankruptcy of the Pentagon’s “spiritual fitness” program) which I explore in Shadows Cast By the Petraeus Scandal. […]

  • […]… – The surveillance state starts eating its own; particular interesting is how little probably cause is involved. […]

  • […] the time of the scandal, Doug Muder in “Shadows Cast By the Petraeus Scandal,” The Weekly Sift, 11/19/12, did exhaustive reading to come up with the even more upsetting […]

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