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Saturday, November 17, 2012

John Prados Gets it Wrong in Washington Post Op-Ed

The article, titled "The outdated rules that forced Petraeus to resign" is here.

Mr. Prados seems to be some kind of a national security expert, so maybe I just don't understand, but I have to say that most of what he says doesn't make much sense.

Here are some of the highlights:

He says "The hysterical reaction to the news of then-CIA Director David Petraeus’s liaison with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, has done more to harm national security than the affair itself."

He never gets around to explaining this, although the theme of his article is that a lot of well-qualified CIA agents have had to resign because of over-restrictive security policies, and that some of those agents may have turned rogue because of those policies (e.g. Ames and Agee both had foreign wives who had to be investigated under the CIA's policies).

First of all I don't think there is a "hysterical reaction" anywhere.  It's a very interesting situation and it's fun to think about and talk about, and we keep learning more good stuff every day.  Today I learned that Paula Broadwell didn't actually win the West Point fitness prize that she says she won, that Harvard asked her to leave because she wasn't getting her work done, and that Jill Kelley tried to use her connections to get an $80 million (or possibly $2 million; accounts differ) commission on $4 billion business deal involving South Korea, and that her connections (possibly including Petraeus and General Allen) had gotten her an appointment as "honorary consul" to South Korea.  But I don't see hysteria in the sense of "oh my god they had sex!!"  Literally NOBODY is saying that.  And yet that seems to be every columnist's favorite straw man -- people are over-reacting about sex, get over it.

No, we're not reacting to the sex.  There's so much more to this story than that.  Now, it might have been the sex that started it, but I seriously doubt that James Clapper advised Petraeus to resign just because of the sex.  What little we do know at this time is that the sex -- or at least the sex appeal, since Petraeus says the affair didn't start until after he left the military -- apparently gave Paula Broadwell all kinds of access that she simply should not have had.  And we now know that Paula is a little bit unbalanced.  Yes, all ambitious, self-promoting people are, and god knows there are a lot of them in the world.  But her email to General Allen was a bit crazy.  So were her emails to Jill Kelley.  She had classified material on her home computer.  She lied about that fitness award.  She took credit for "writing" the "All In" book, but really it was ghost written by Vernon Loeb -- Paula just sent in the field reports.  There are also allegations that Petraeus took Broadwell on a government-funded trip to Paris.

So perhaps the sex (or the sex appeal) caused other "lapses" of judgment by Petraeus.  Petraeus knows, Broadwell knows, Clapper knows, Obama probably knows, but the rest of us will have to sit and wait.  What we do know, but what Prados and the like don't seem to understand, is that Petraeus wasn't fired just because of the sex.

And that's just the Broadwell side of things.  Everything we are learning about Jill Kelley seems to scream out "inappropriate"!  Did the generals really have to go to those parties at her house?  In a 28-cop motorcade?  Is it really that easy for someone like Jill Kelley to get access to four star generals, just by throwing a few lavish parties on her maxed-out credit card? Did Petraeus really have time to become "friends" with the Kelleys?  Did Petraeus really  have to write that letter in the court case for the sister?  Did he help Jill Kelley in other ways?

I have a feeling that Paula's emails to Allen and Kelley were not entirely without basis.  She wasn't delusional.  For all we know, the whole Kelley vortex is just about to suck Petraeus in, along with General Allen.

Like Richard Cohen, Prados seems to assume that by thus penalizing Petraeus for having sex, we are throwing away Petraeus's irreplaceable talents for nothing.  He also seems to assume that we have enough information about what went on to know for a fact that Petraeus shouldn't have been fired.  But as I've explained above, we just don't know.

Eventually Prados gets to his real point, which is that certain CIA rules that have nothing to do with the current situation (and one of which has been repealed) are just too draconian.  In particular, he is talking about [1] the "CIA’s insistence on investigating foreigners engaged to agency employees and [2] its own version of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” under which intelligence officers found to be gay lost their clearances or even their jobs."  He admits up front that the latter policy was revoked  by Executive Order in 1998, but seems annoyed that it was the President, not the agency, that did the revoking.

The rest of the article is pure handwringing and speculation.  In short, he wonders how many talented people left the agency because they didn't want their foreign wives to have to be subjected to a security check, or because they were gay.  And as mentioned already, he finds it highly significant that a handful of spies (well, Ames and Agee, anyway) could be characterized as having been offended by the foreign-wife-security-check policy.

He also has a riff on how the people at the top of the CIA tend to get away with stuff that the lower ranks don't (even though this doesn't really fit with his theme that Petraeus should be allowed to stay).

Towards the end he says:

"The ostensible concern about the Petraeus affair was the potential for blackmail. Yet it is far-fetched today to think that a foreign government would contrive an operation to ensnare a CIA employee through an affair, a foreign-spy spouse or an allegation of homosexuality. Our enemies are unlikely to bother with such complicated schemes. Instead, they buy information — the method that has remained tried and true — or attempt to hack it from the data-rich computer networks that the government is spending billions to defend."

Like just about everything else in the piece, this too misses the point.  The blackmail concern is that if you are having an affair with ANYONE, anyone who finds out about it can blackmail you by threatening to tell (e.g.) your wife, or, if you're famous, the newspapers.  Given how protective Petraeus was of his reputation, that would have been a very serious threat indeed.  Who knows what he would have done if somebody had decided to try to blackmail him with information about his affair.  The CIA's rules (if there is a CIA rule against adultery; I'm not sure) -- which admittedly are unfair to adulterers who get caught -- are designed to prevent this.

To those talented CIA agents who want to commit adultery and still keep their jobs -- and I'm sure there are more than a few -- I have just one piece of advice:  Don't get caught!

Update 11/21/12:  It's not just Prados and Cohen that think along these lines -- at the Washington Post alone, it's also Milbank, Hiatt, and Ignatius.  My response is here.

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