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The End of Privacy: Lessons Learned by 4-Star Generals, the Intelligence Community, and the Rest of Us

“When authorities warn you of the sinfulness of sex, there is an important lesson to be learned. Do not have sex with the authorities.” 
– Matt Groening

“Adultery is the application of democracy to love.” 
– H.L. Mencken

Flings, adultery, hanky-panky, mistresses, private and semi-public liaisons are a common side-effect – some consider it a “reward” – to those who have achieved much, after years of dedication and self-deprivation, and are now – finally – at the top of their game. Leaders, captains of industry, sports and entertainment figures, Wall Street moguls, bigwigs, and big cheeses everywhere see such behavior as a private perk. And in most countries, these personal incentives remain private.

The internet, however, has changed everything. Privacy has ended. We now have tweets, Facebook indiscreet tell-alls, blogs, muckraking shows, and our desperate circling-the-drain print and TV empires relying on leaks, gossip, and smears to goose up their ratings. And it isn’t often specific mistakes made on the job that curtails a promising career, but side events or exposed private activities that trip up some of the smartest people, when they least expect it.

Like post-tsunami flotsam washing up to spoil pristine beaches, these changes in the hypocritical expectations of the public have swept into the government arena – staining otherwise unblemished military and government careers. Inklings of these changes calling for the rigid adherence – private and publically – to a narrow moral code were already creeping in if we look back at the late 1970s. It was then that President Carter, with a predisposition against the CIA, put his classmate, Stansfield Turner, in charge of the Agency, with one assignment: dismantle the unscientific, low-tech human collection (HUMINT) side of the business. Turner did just that, retiring and firing many. Yet both Carter and Turner eventually came to appreciate CIA HUMINT after their own planned covert operation – Desert Storm – sans CIA involvement, failed miserably. Moral priggishness and an incomprehensible use of a Bible and a cake (in a Muslim country?) further added to the bad outcome. The encroachment of narrow moral strictures which bungled an important operation was a lesson that arrived too late.

President Clinton, on bad counsel, sent a reluctant John Deutch, a respected scientist, to head the CIA. Deutsch, under pressure from the House of Representatives, put restraints on what were considered “politically incorrect” operations (Hello? Many intelligence operations do not met the P.C. test.), alienating CIA rank and file, and drastically reducing needed intelligence collection. These intelligence amateurs, albeit now charged with management of CIA, were troubled – shocked – the CIA was breaking foreign laws to obtain intelligence. But it was not this smug unctuousness that ended Deutch’s tenure. It was a personal misstep involving sex. It was revealed he placed classified information on a personal computer also being used (by someone) to visit Russian or Chinese-controlled pornographic sites – a famous nexus for computer infections and all sorts of compromises. As for Clinton, even today’s youngsters know all about Clinton’s oval office dalliances. Yet he got through the media, congressional, and public firestorm and continued to serve. Not all moral line-crossings result in ruination of careers. And perhaps that should have been the path followed by Petraeus… but it wasn’t to be, for Petraeus had made his reputation on doing as he preached, and he preached moral sanctity in one’s public and personal life.

Petraeus appeared to be an excellent choice to head the CIA. As an end user of CIA intelligence products while he served with the Special Forces in the Mid-East, he admired and respected the job CIA could do, and was there as it took down Osama bin Laden. And he was a strong, pro-Predator champion when he took over the reins of CIA leadership. But it would be a hidden, secret aspect of his personal life that would lead to his fall from grace. One that was needless because it is a commonplace occurrence that has little impact on the quality of his work performance, yet crossed over the line that shields one from public exposure, criticism, and rebuke. And made worse by his well-known moral stance required of those who served below him.

What added to the tragedy in Petraeus’s resignation over his dalliance with Paula Broadwell (and possibly unnamed others) was compounded by his not being in the job long enough for supporters to insist he soldier on despite the public drubbing he and his wife Holly would receive from the disclosure of his affair. There was also the risk that Ms. Broadwell was not the first liaison. He made clear on his arrival his “four-star lifestyle” was past – he was now a civilian, and did not bring along his own military staff to run interference for him, in a place like CIA which doesn’t click its heels and does not hesitate to speak back to generals. He listened and was learning. The CIA, on its part, continued on its path of protecting the nation with its array of counterterrorism operations.

Other generals, in a different era, were allowed to be human, to have liaisons, while keeping up appearances with their families and colleagues. Eisenhower’s affair with Kay Summersby, while he was away at war, was properly ignored. Roosevelt’s life-long mistress, Lucy Mercer, was at his bedside at his death rather than his wife Eleanor. John F. Kennedy’s more serious dalliances included a suspected Nazi spy, mafia moll, and orgies with interns and call girls including the passing around to his friends in the swimming pool, the services of a pliant intern, much as waiters circulate “pigs in the blanket” hors d’oeuvres. All of these went unreported and the principals walked away refreshed and unscathed.

Mankind is not perfect. We, the world’s most licentious and sexually open society, did not throw these men or their paramours under the bus of moral rectitude. We maturely recognized that such high achievers need to be accepted – warts and all.  Neither Eisenhower, nor Roosevelt, nor JFK could have withstood the scrutiny provided by today’s press vigilantes – that posse that went after Petraeus. Human nature is flawed and this flaw is found in even the most admirable of us. Aristotelian ethics reminds us the best perspective for virtues is in the middle – that is, for example, courage is a virtue, but too much is recklessness and too little is cowardice. The same can be said for moral righteousness. Similarly, we may properly be critical of the excesses of generals while also keeping in mind that no general is without flaw, and many of the best are irreplaceable. To many, Petraeus fit that mold and we’ve now thrown him away.

As a general, Petraeus knew that one had to lead by example. This is especially true for those whose job it is to fight and face being killed. But in his new leadership as Director of CIA, his personal missteps provided no threat to national security. His escapade, had he and others not jumped so quickly to have him resign, would have eventually been forgiven. Petraeus exemplified our finally getting things right in Iraq, for which he should be remembered. If only we had gotten things right in our own treatment of him.

Already the media is speculating who might be the next CIA Director. Whispers include John Brennan at the White House, Mike Vickers in the Pentagon, or Mike Morrell already serving as temporary CIA Director – all former CIA officers. Whichever man is chosen for the toughest job in Washington, he will be responsible for directing CIA on the complicated path the nation needs. Let’s not make the weight of the job – or those serving in similar jobs of this magnitude – more difficult, by insisting that their private lives measure up to a standard few of us can, or ever will, meet. Privacy lost by them, is also gone for us, too.