Another affair, another moral paroxysm. Not that we should be concerned about extra renditions, torture, and subversive tactics – the CIA’s Director can resign, not because of a vicious policy, but because of a considerable lack of bed room judgment and horizontal collaboration. This, speculate Washington insiders, is the end of David Petraeus’ public career. “No man is indispensable,” writes an almost mournful John Barry, “but Petraeus’ brains, drive, and combination of military and political talents did give promise that the CIA would not be his last public office” (Daily Beast, Nov 11).
The casualty rate for a CIA director is a high one. Richard Helms (1966-73) ran foul of the Nixon administration for perceived disloyalty; James Woolsey (1993-5) departed in light of a perceived reluctance in taking a stance against officers involved with the Soviet-Russian CIA mole Aldrich Ames. John Deutsch’s lighting brief tenure (1995-6) ended after allegations of casual mishandling of sensitive material (Eurasia Review, Nov 11).
The sense of proportion about this is staggering, though there are feeble attempts to claim that this is something beyond “sex”, security beyond the bedroom. As Michael Pearson of CNN (Nov 12) claims, “The scandal surrounding the decorated four-star Army general who once ran the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan involves questions of national security, politics and even the September 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead.”
The news is being sexed, spiced, and gingered. The participants are being deemed “security” leaks – Paula Broadwell, the suspected paramour, supposedly gave a compromising speech on the security complex of the Benghazi consulate. She might have leaked material on Facebook. She might have even had, shock horror, access to the General’s email account. One suspects, however, that the press corps and smut vultures are grasping at straws. There is nothing more to tell, other than showing that such scandals can bring heads of vast and lethal government departments to heel.
A look at other historical events suggests that the comingling of body fluids and state information are considered fundamental parts of the espionage pursuit. Britain had its Profumo affair in 1963, when the Secretary of State for War John Profumo did the walk with “party girl” Christine Keeler. All was above board – till it came out that Keeler had also been dallying with senior naval attaché Yevgeny “Eugene” Ivanov of the Soviet Embassy in London. When it came to a sex scandal involving officials of the South Korean consulate in Shanghai last year, a “probe” was immediately launched. “Our probe,” claimed Kim Seok-min of the South Korean prime minister’s office, “showed it was a simple sex scandal caused by a lack of discipline among Korean diplomats. It’s not an espionage case” (Zeenews, Mar 27, 2011). A CIA chief, for his position, ticks all the boxes – smut, security and sundry.
America’s own apotheosis of sex in high office took place when the President erect, in the form of a careless and occasionally ruthless President Bill Clinton spilt his genetic material over a certain intern’s blue dress. Conducting foreign policy with his fly open, his sexual antics dangerously combined with the infliction of war crimes on the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan – a vicious mix, if there ever was one. Individuals such as Independent Counsel Ken Starr (don’t we miss those days?) preferred to examine Clinton’s record on mendacity. Presumably, Starr thought that a person, when confronted about extra-marital pursuits in high office, would actually speak about them with angelic honestly.
Everything that is being written about this encounter reeks of smut and innuendo. Consider CNN’s account. “About four years ago, Paula Broadwell began her PhD dissertation on Gen. David Petraeus’ innovative leadership skills.” Note the suggestive sniggers, the dirty grin and assumptions that follow. “Some of the interviews were done via e-mail. Others were conducted as Broadwell occasionally ran with the physically fit four-star, including one with Petraeus and his team along the Potomac River in Washington.” Rehearsed fitness regimes, followed by sly bonking, and chatter about deep matters of national security. Instead of doing the decent thing and staying regular on claret, Petraeus was engaging in that fatuous thing called “exercise” – with an admiring intelligence analyst in tow. Beware figures of authority who run.
The language itself of the entire episode easily moves into the realm of the lewd and lurid. It seems that the chief of central intelligence was having his own emails monitored by the FBI, on suspicion that Broadwell might have had access to them. There are double entendres, morsels for the dirty mind. The language of the military – one of violence and subjugation – often lends itself to sexualised import. “Broadwell told [Brooke] Baldwin [of CNN] that she embedded with Petraeus’ staff and troops in the field, sharing their hardships and risks.”
One of the problems here, it seems, was that Petraeus’ admirer could not keep her mouth shut, stroking the ego of her subject while no doubt gaining a sense of self-inflated confidence. Those who seek retreat in the kingdom of the body tend to have little imagination outside it. This was well manifested by Broadwell’s 60 push-ups on The Daily Show. Green horned jealously eventually intervened, and Broadwell’s itchy fingers sent an assortment, it is claimed, of harassing emails to another woman “close” to Petraeus, since named Jill Kelley. (Ah, another snigger. Did the general get Kelley into the sack as well?) The FBI, that august institution and not always friend of the CIA, decided to get their paws dirty after Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, received information from “an FBI employee whom his staff described as a whistle-blower” (New York Times, Nov 11).
As hard as the sex scroungers will be looking, justifying their lust for lewdness by seeking a “security” breach, sex is all they will find. That, and the extraordinary sense of disproportion that comes with its appraisal. One can make agreements with the President on launching drone strikes that wipe out entire families in Waziristan. Or – and the Taliban, take note – one can fall from grace after a sexual indiscretion in Freedom land. The moral in Washington, as it has been since the early days of the Republic: Make sure your fly is always done.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org