As much as the scandal has shocked the military, many officers welcome the ethics review of senior military officers that Panetta announced Thursday.
"I think at this point given what we've seen in the last many days, weeks and months, it's a good time to take a step back and assess where we're at in the general officer corps, the ethics training that is given, and do a self-evaluation of the institution," said retired Army Lt. Gen. Benjamin "Randy" Mixon. Mixon was the commander of U.S. Army Pacific and understands the ethical rules by which three-star commanders must abide and the traps they are taught to avoid.
"I knew Gen. Petraeus very well," Mixon said, adding that he is "completely saddened" by the news of the affair, which he claimed was "totally uncharacteristic from what I know of him for many years. I'm dumfounded by it, quite frankly."
All general officers are taught early and often the ethical standards they must uphold, Mixon said. And, in a world where subordinates must obey their superiors, generals are taught to avoid the possible appearance of wrongdoing, as well as wrongdoing itself. Every time Mixon's wife joined him on foreign travels, he insisted legal counsel approve her moves, not only to abide by the rules but also to show they were aboveboard.
Mixon said he was always very careful with his words and the impression he would leave, especially around women. "You're definitely more visible at that level," he said, of being a three-star general. "I was always very cautious about not becoming too familiar with people that I dealt with, particularly females that might be doing an interview."
Still, Mixon feels the Petraeus and Allen cases are extraordinary anomalies and rejects assertions that there's a bad boy climate pervasive among the upper ranks. "I don't think that's the case at all," he said, "but you have to remember that we're all human and we can make mistakes, and unfortunately this was a huge one.
Some individuals who claim to have seen some of the emails between Allen and Kelley say they contain nothing more damning than some overly familiar back-and-forth with an attractive young woman. Other Marine generals are said to think that Allen's use of the word "sweetheart" is just the usual banter of a man who grew up in Warrenton, Virginia.
One retired Marine general said the White House was being too cautious. Fearing the administration would be accused of a lack of transparency about the FBI's investigation of Petraeus, Obama's Pentagon announced the Allen inquiry and put his nomination on hold so as "not to get burned."
"This is one where they probably should have done a little more homework on before announcing," he said.
Indeed, the White House, Panetta, and even Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, have all appeared to defend Allen, almost as if they were walking back the initial decision to investigate the matter. That said, officials familiar with the investigation have said Panetta was well aware of the implications the investigation could have on Allen's career and reputation but thought there was enough evidence to start it anyway.
Dempsey had fought to get an Army general nominated to the high-profile NATO job in Europe for which Allen, a Marine, was nominated. This week, he gave only faint praise for the nomination, supporting the war commander but leaving room for himself if anything untoward is found.
"We have John Allen scheduled to become the [NATO and Europe] commander, and I wouldn't want him to miss that opportunity unless there is reason for that to happen," Dempsey said in an interview with American Forces Press Service, the Pentagon's internal news service, while in Asia. "I don't see that at this point, but I see this investigation and how long it could take affecting that."
In the Pentagon, staffers are still shaking their heads trying to make sense of whether the current allegations regarding both Allen and Petraeus are crimes or just transgressions. But as the salacious details have emerged over recent days, the bottom line for some is whether national security was at risk.