A story of human failure, not a threat to national security

Sometimes an affair is just an affair.

By saying just, we don’t mean to minimize the pain that an affair causes or the potential fallout from an affair for those involved and, especially, for innocent spouses and children dragged into the danger zone.

But the affair between former general and ex-CIA director David Petraeus and his biographer, Paula Broadwell, may not have any greater national security implications than the celebrated affair of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor during the filming of “Cleopatra.”

The difference is that we’ve come to expect better behavior from the people we entrust with our national security than the people we depend on for entertainment. Sadly and demonstrably, that is not the case.

Petraeus and Broadwell were the recipients of the best public and private educations that the United States has to offer. Both graduated from West Point, though a generation apart. Petraeus has a doctorate from Princeton; Broadwell is working on one from Harvard. Which only goes to show that very bright people are capable of doing stupid things. And someone such as Petraeus, who was introduced to the honor code at West Point and developed a reputation over the next 40 years as a disciplined, thoughtful and even compassionate leader, could behave in a way that was self-destructive and cruel to those who had loved and supported him.

And beyond that, not much more is actually known about their affair. That there was one is known because Petraeus admitted it when tendering his resignation, and Broadwell is said to have admitted it to FBI agents who questioned her about vaguely threatening emails she sent to another woman.

The driving forces

Almost everything else is speculation, and that speculation has gone wild — driven by post-election politics, by the relentless — and often partisan — news cycle, and by human nature.

That much of the storyline seems to have been written for a soap opera and that it involves power — both civilian and military — at the highest levels only fuels the flames.

At its heart is a familiar story, one as old as man and woman, and yet it is a complicated tale populated by complicated characters.

Even the other-other woman, Tampa socialite Jill Kelley, is complicated. When she began receiving emails of an ominous, if not threatening, tone, she went to a friendly FBI agent for help. That she apparently did not connect the emails with Petraeus would seem to support her contention that their relationship was familial and platonic. But now the nature of email correspondence she had with another general has come into question. And based on that investigation, the promotion of Marine Gen. John Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, to supreme allied commander in Europe has been put on hold.

There’s been much made in the days since this story broke about the time it took for the FBI to investigate — from last spring through this summer. Anyone in law enforcement or who covers law enforcement will tell you that the FBI works at its own pace. If it takes weeks, months or years to cross the t’s and dot the i’s, so be it.

The FBI won’t even acknowledge that an investigation exists, much less give people outside the Justice Department progress reports.

And those who see some vague connection between the timing of Petraeus’ resignation and his testimony on the Benghazi attack that was scheduled for Thursday should rest easy. If the House or Senate wants Petraeus to testify about that or anything else, he’s bound to appear, regardless of his employment status.

Absent evidence of a crime or a breach in national security that would allow the courts or Congress to shed additional light on these affairs, it is unlikely that the public’s hunger for all the sordid details will be sated.

Because at its heart, it’s a story of infidelity, and the lack of judgment that causes it and the unnecessary pain that grows out of it. Some may want to make all that into, quite literally, a federal case, but it isn’t.

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