By Fred Benson
As Wall Street began melting down in 2008, financial institutions and the company insuring them lined up to claim that they were “too big to fail” and that government intervention was necessary. The White House, fearing the consequences of a larger economic disaster, concurred. In retrospect, most would agree that this was a proper course of action. But the notion that powerful firms and important individuals who engage in destructive behavior and corrupt practices can escape taking responsibility for their actions should remain of great concern to all Americans.
The recent plea bargain struck by the U.S. Justice Department and retired four-star General and former CIA Director David Petraeus has a familiar ring to it. Petraeus, once considered an outstanding general of his generation, resigned from government when confronted with evidence that he was involved in an extramarital affair with his biographer and had provided notebooks with classified information to her after he retired from the Army. Those notebooks included the identities of covert officers, details of secret operations and the content of his private discussions with President Obama. In return for a guilty plea on a single misdemeanor charge of “unauthorized removal and retention of classified material,” Petraeus was fined $40,000 and sentenced to two years probation. Although the FBI and Justice Department reportedly pressed for felony charges, Petraeus received a sentence far less punitive than defendants convicted of similar violations, whose punishments ranged from 20 to 30 months in jail.
Like the Wall Street debacle in 2008, several government voices united in a chorus suggesting that Petraeus was “too big to jail.” The White House obviously wasn’t interested in prosecuting a former cabinet member who had played such a prominent role in conducting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Further, the CIA didn’t welcome public discussion involving the release of classified government material, nor did the Petraeus family have any interest in disclosing details of his infidelity. Consequently, having escaped with a slap on the wrist and a dent in his wallet, Petraeus returned to private life and is reportedly enjoying a profitable career in the financial world. Thankfully, he is no longer mentioning a presidential bid.
In contrast, consider the case of Private Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, who was sentenced to 35 years in prison for providing more than 700,000 classified government files to WikiLeaks, exposing details of American military and diplomatic activities around the world. Thinking himself to be a whistleblower, Manning claimed that he just wanted the American public to know what was going on. Petraeus, on the other hand, seemed to be trading classified information for, uh, let’s just say, female companionship. Manning got what he deserved, Petraeus did not.
Manning was a junior level, misguided clerk who never should have been given access to this information. Petraeus, on the other hand, had been handling sensitive material for decades and was the director of the agency where protection of classified information is critical to the security of this nation. In his transition from military to civilian positions, Petraeus clearly lost sight of a fundamental leadership principle: that the commander always sets a flawless example for those who serve under and with him. His plea bargain was prima facie evidence of his greatest failing: he could not be trusted by his family, his government or his former military colleagues.
Petraeus’ personal indiscretion and his criminal conduct regarding release of classified documents have forever sullied his uniform and his reputation. He is an embarrassment to those who have served honorably in the defense of our nation. He should have been jailed.
Fred Benson is a resident of Mount Desert and publishes Capitol Commentary, an independent political newsletter. [email protected]