An inglorious postscript to the career of Gen. David Petraeus

Gen. David Petraeus’s military career had been so successful that supporters recommended a fifth star and a run for the presidency. That all came crashing down when he admitted providing classified information to his biographer and mistress.

Bob Leverone/AP
Former CIA director David Petraeus, whose career was destroyed by an extramarital affair with his biographer and the leak of classified documents, arrives for sentencing at the federal courthouse in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday.

At the height of his career, David Petraeus was seen by many as the greatest US military leader since Omar Bradley – the last officer to wear five stars as “General of the Army.” Adding that fifth star, which many pundits recommended, would have made him equal in rank with such World War II military leaders as Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, George Marshall, Chester Nimitz, and William Halsey.

“Like these great leaders, Gen. Petraeus's breadth of experience and outstanding results deserve to be recognized and honored,” Iraq War veterans Pete Hegseth and Wade Zirkle wrote in The Wall Street Journal.

Instead, retired four-star US Army general and former CIA director David Petraeus appeared in a federal court in North Carolina Thursday to learn his punishment for having provided highly classified documents to his biographer, with whom he was having an adulterous affair.

It was an inglorious postscript to what, in fact, was a career of remarkable arc and extraordinary accomplishment: distinguished West Point graduate with a PhD from Princeton; top US military officer in Iraq and then Afghanistan, where he seemed to turn things around in those two unpopular wars, facilitating a US exit; head of the CIA; mentioned as a possible presidential or vice-presidential candidate – like General Eisenhower, both political parties would have been happy to have him – meanwhile teaching, giving well-paid speeches, and working as a partner in one of the world’s largest private-equity firms.

Petraeus agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor count of unauthorized removal and retention of classified material. A judge sentenced him to two years probation and a $100,000 fine.

As part of the deal, Petraeus agreed not to contest the facts laid out by the government, including that he had given his biographer and mistress Paula Broadwell access to eight binders of classified material he had improperly kept from his time as the top military commander in Afghanistan. Among the secret information contained in the binders were the names of covert operatives, the coalition war strategy, and notes about Petraeus's discussions with President Obama and the National Security Council, the AP reports.

Prosecutors said that, after resigning from the CIA in November 2012, Petraeus had signed a form falsely attesting he had no classified material. He also lied to FBI agents by denying he supplied the information to Ms. Broadwell, according to court documents.

Critics say Petraeus got off too easy with the plea agreement and no-prison-time punishment.

Ben Wizner, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, said lighter sentences for people involved in leaking are fine as long as such treatment is handed out equally. Mr. Wizner represents former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who sought asylum in Russia after leaking information regarding that agency's information-gathering practices regarding US citizens to the press.

"The problem is not that David Petraeus is getting lenient treatment," Mr. Wizner told Reuters. "The problem is that lenient treatment is only available to people in high places."

Chelsea Manning, the transgender US Army enlisted soldier formerly named Bradley Manning, was sentenced to 35 years in prison in 2013 for disclosing classified documents to WikiLeaks. Former State Department contractor Stephen Jin-Woo Kim was sentenced to 13 months in prison for disclosing classified information to a Fox News reporter. Former CIA officer John Kiriakou served 30 months in federal prison after he disclosed the name of a covert operative to a reporter. 

Petraeus’s punishment will likely have lasting ramifications on future leak cases, national security lawyers told Kevin Maurer of The Daily Beast, warning that creating a double standard can be exploited by defense attorneys in future cases.

“This is a horrible choice by the government,” said Mark Zaid, a national security lawyer for more than two decades. “I think it is going to have a negative impact. The judges who are going to be truly objective are going to look at the Petraeus case. Going forward, it is going to hurt the government’s cases.”

It’s unclear whether Petraeus’s guilty plea will affect the former CIA director’s security clearances and his access to the White House, where he has counseled senior administration officials on how to combat the Islamic State, the Washington Post reports.

At his sentencing hearing Thursday, Petraeus said, "I want to take this opportunity to apologize for the pain my actions have caused."

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