Petraeus and the Shlock Doctrine

Is this a sex scandal, a security scandal, a new hybrid or none of the above? Anne Kingston explains.

FBI agents search the home of Petraeus' mistress Paula Broadwell on Nov. 13, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina (Streeter Lecka/Getty)

We’re now into day five of the constantly unraveling, can’t-look-away-from, still-too-early-to-properly-identify-what-it-is  mess triggered by CIA director David Petraeus’s surprise resignation on Friday, which arrived just in time to more than fill the post-election news vacuum.  Yesterday brought a “shirtless FBI agent”   and a “psychologically unstable” twin,  And new reports accuse  Petraeus’s replacement in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, of sending between 20,000 and 30,000 pages of “potentially inappropriate” emails to another women enmeshed in the case.

And the questions are piling up: Why exactly did Petraeus resign? Did the U.S.’s top spy really think sex-mailing in the draft folder of an unprotected Gmail account wouldn’t be untraceable? What does an “unpaid social liaison” do?  Did Petraeus break martial law? What does this all have to do, if anything, with Benghazi? And. most perplexingly: Why is Chuck Klosterman writing the New York Times‘ Ethicist column?

Pearl-clutching shock accompanied news that the fabled former four-star general, a powerful, 60-year-old alpha male well-versed in Washington ways, could have cheated on his wife of 38 years. “Say it ain’t so, David,” went the chorus after Petraeus issued a statement expressing regret for his “extremely poor judgment.” The revered figure who led troops in Iraq and Afghanistan was praised as a “straight-shooter,” the consummate family man,” a potential Republican presidential contender. His success was rooted in his disciplined and careful control of his public image. Now he’s “Betrayeus” and the plot he’s at the centre of is more convoluted than Homeland. (Today, thoughtfully compiled this flowchart to keep track of the growing roster of characters; Buzzfeed complied this one.)

We’ve also learned more than anyone really needs to know about  his inamorata: 40-year-old Paula Broadwell, West Point grad (as is Petraeus), former Harvard University researcher, PhD candidate in the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London,  machine-gun model, fitness fanatic, former Army reservist and married “soccer mom” to two young children. Broadwell, who bills  herself a “national security analyst” on Twitter was Petraeus’s Boswell,  the author of the fawning, much-hyped 2012 biography All In: The Education of General David Petraeus. On Nov. 5, a day before the election, she wrote a piece for the Daily Beast titled “General Petraeus’s Rules for Living.”  Yes, the jokes write themselves.

The two met in 2006 when Petraeus visited Harvard. By 2008, the general was a case study in Broadwell’s  Ph.D. thesis. In 2009, shortly after he assumed the role as U.S. Central Command in Chief, he began introducing her as his official biographer. Absent of any experience as a journalist or historian, Broadwell appeared an unlikely candidate for the job. But by 2010 she was “embedded” in Afganistan with his troops. In 2011, she  posted on about the “success” of a Petraeus subordinate in demolishing the village of Tarok Kalache after clearing it. Her book was dismissed as propaganda. Yet, ironically,  it burnished Petraeus’s reputation, the one their alleged affair would end up besmirching. Broadwell made the talk show rounds—  Charlie Rose  to The Daily Show — leaving behind video footage that shows her gushing about Petraeus, and acting as his self-appointed mouthpiece.

According to the emerging narrative, one largely based on unnamed sources, Broadwell’s unhinged infatuation was the CIA chief’s undoing. She is accused of sending “threatening and harassing” anonymous  emails to a woman  identified  as 37-year-old Jill Kelley,  an unpaid “social liaison” at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, where U.S. Central Command is located and where Petraeus worked from 2008 to 2010.  Kelley, who like Broadwell has a doctor husband and young children, was apparently so unnerved by the emails she went to the FBI, who traced them to Broadwell—and then stumbled upon a cache of sexually explicit correspondence between her and a Gmail account Petraeus had set up.  They didn’t know at first if they were dealing with a “cyber-crime or possible breach of classified information.”  According to the Washington Post, Petraeus knew of the FBI investigation in the summer, which is when he allegedly told Broadwell to stop harassing Kelley and broke off the relationship (though, according to the Wall Street Journal,  he continued to advise her on her research into “innovation in the 101st Airborne Division in Northern Iraq in 2003,” which he had commanded).

Petraeus and Broadwell are said to have been questioned separately by the FBI in late October; both admitted to the affair and insisted it posed no national security threats. But a Washington Post story yesterday  reports that CIA insiders had concerns about Broadwell’s indiscretions on Facebook. Whether Petreaus murmured any classified pillow talk about drones is unclear, but a  video  has surfaced of an Oct. 26 lecture at at the University of Denver during which she alleges the CIA  “had taken a couple of Libyan militia members prisoner and they think that the attack on the consulate was an effort to try to get these prisoners back,” though she added: “That’s still being vetted.” Seeming to speak for Petraeus, she noted “the challenging thing for General Petraeus is that in his new position he’s not allowed to communicate with the press. So he’s known all of this.” The CIA has flatly denied her claim. Then classified documents were found on Broadwell’s computer. Petraeus has denied being the source.

It’s impossible to keep up with the stuff that doesn’t add up. For one, it isn’t clear why Kelley’s complaint to the FBI launched a full-blown investigation. (In one version of events, Broadwell made angry “back off,” and “stay away from my guy” noises. But the Daily Beast, which has a professional relationship with Broadwell, reports that the emails’ contents didn’t warrant FBI scrutiny.) Or why, if Kelley and Petreaus are such great buds, she brought in the FBI. Could Kelley too have been involved with Petraeus? (In the algebra of extra-marital affairs, one often equals more than one.)

Kelley and her her husband have retained heavy-gun legal and PR help, which they’re going to need. Yesterday reports surfaced that an FBI agent involved with the case had sent Kelley shirtless pictures of himself.  Then came today’s revelation that Gen. Allen, too, blanketed her with emails. On Sunday, the couple issued a statement: “We and our family have been friends with General Petraeus and his family for over 5 years. We respect his and his family’s privacy and want the same for us and our three children.” On Tuesday came another  report that both Petraeus and Allen had written letters of support for  Kelley’s “psychologically unstable” twin sister when she was in the midst of a nasty child custody battle, which of course raised questions as to whether they were sexually involved with her as well.

Timing questions–and conspiracy theories–abound. It hasn’t gone unnoticed that Petreaus resigned right after the election, on the eve of  his appearance before Congress about the attacks on US installments in Benghazi. Acting CIA director Mike Morrell will take his place Thursday,  though many are still pushing for Petraeus to appear.

The timing of the affair itself is another big question mark. Initial reports indicated it began when Petraeus was in the army, which would make it a crime under military law. Now “sources” insist the dalliance began after he entered civilian life, which strains credulity but leaves him (and Broadwell)  off the hook. It also leaves the CIA in the clear for not unearthing the hanky-panky during screening.

The details of the case, especially the totally false ones, have been riveting. Within hours of Petraeus’s resignation, Twitter was abuzz with speculation that Broadwell’s radiologist husband had written this letter  (second down) to the New York Times’ Ethicist column in July.  It’s allegedly from a husband whose wife is having an affair with a “government executive” whose work “is seen worldwide as a demonstration of American leadership.” Gonzo novelist Chuck Klosterman, who writes the column, advised the writer not to “expose the relationship in any public way,” but said he “halfway suspects” the letter-writer hoped the people involved in the affair would read it—and proclaims “that’s not ethical either.”  The rumour was debunked Saturday.

The biggest question is whether this is a sex scandal, a security scandal, a new hybrid or none of the above. Already it’s serving as a post-Lewinsky-Clinton litmus test of a nation’s sexual politics. The fact that Petraeus was forced to step down from a job not traditionally known for sexual probity suggests how out of control the situation is.  There’s also the new scarlet-letter shaming of Broadwell, who’s being depicted as a Fatal Attraction femme fatale, a “shameless self-promoting prom queen,” who got her “claws” into the general. Elsewhere, she’s upheld as an casualty of  “adultery’s glass ceiling.” Now she has gone to ground, deleting her website and Facebook page. Late yesterday, longtime Washington criminal defense attorney Robert F. Muse, announced she’d retained him. Last night at 9 p.m., 10 G-men arrived at Broadwell’s North Carolina house carrying evidence boxes and duffel bags. They were seen from the outside going from room to room.

In her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein explored  how politicians and regimes exploited and employed crisis and catastrophe to destabilize and divert public attention from what’s really going on. If events of the last five days are any indication, a steady diet of diversionary schlock can do the same.

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