In a trying seven days for the military, David Petraeus has resigned over an affair, Gen. John Allen faces an investigation that threatens his career, and a pall has been cast over America's senior officer corps.
Yet for an institution as respected among the public as the military, perhaps it is telling that the reaction among both rank-and-file troops and senior officers is stunned surprise that revered leaders could make such mistakes. The culture that puts its leaders on such high pedestals may be the very thing that contributed to their downfall.
But military circles are also drawing a big distinction between Petraeus, a celebrity and a politician who was both loved for his brilliance and loathed for his success, and Allen, who is generally well-liked inside and outside the Marine Corps, even if his nerdy lack of flash masks a cold ambition. And, of course, Allen has not admitted to an affair.
In more than a dozen interviews with current and former officers and senior Pentagon civilians, reaction to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's decision to launch an investigation into the e-mail traffic between Allen and Tampa socialite Jill Kelley suggests that most insiders believe Allen will be exonerated. They say it is significant that Allen has said, at least through Pentagon officials, that there was no wrongdoing and that he was not having an affair with Kelley.
"Anything inappropriate from Allen -- beyond a couple of overly familiar emails -- would be truly shocking," said one former defense official.
What they do call into question is Allen's judgment for extensive e-mail exchanges, regardless of their content, with a woman who has been portrayed as an ambitious social climber with direct ties to questionable charities and business dealings. Why would someone who has worked so hard to maintain a squeaky-clean image in the military associate with someone like Kelley, they ask.
Regardless, some believe Panetta may well have overreacted in calling for the investigation. It could cost Allen his career by preventing him from become Supreme Allied Commander, Europe -- the job for which he had been nominated. Adm. Jim Stavridis, currently in that post, was himself investigated for bookkeeping improprieties. He was ultimately cleared, but the investigation may have prevented him from being named chief of naval operations, as many expected.
"I'm all for going after the brass, but this could turn out to be a real miscarriage," the official said of the Allen investigation.
"There is nobody straighter than John Allen," said one active-duty Army general, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the situation. "He may have said something flirtatiously in e-mails, but that is the southern gentleman," the officer said. "The investigation will show what it is."
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.
"It's what I don't know that makes me wonder," said one Pentagon staffer. "Given all the reports and stuff like that I'm just shaking my head and going, ‘Ok, if there's more to it and it sounds like there might be, I'm concerned about the [classified] information" that has been inappropriately handled.
Classified information has been found on the home computer of Paula Broadwell, the woman with whom Petraeus has admitted to a having an affair, and her messages to Kelley detailed comings and goings of generals at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Florida.
"Does this go beyond simply bad decisions about personal behavior, does it also go to criminal activity or concern criminal activity," said the staffer, who believes that Broadwell, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, should be brought up on charges if she mishandled classified information. "You're not allowed to take things home."
Meanwhile, the issue of just what a "social liaison" is and how Kelley worked her way into the inner circle of Centcom brass without being properly vetted by otherwise security-conscious military personnel, baffled the staffer. "For DOD, I would think that they would start talking about those kind of [community outreach] programs" that draw social liaisons into the military community.
"There's nothing written that even covers any of that kind of stuff," said the source, of the need for the military to establish standards and behavioral guidelines for so-called civic leaders that are frequently asked to participate in and organize fundraisers at military bases.
Panetta's ethics review will in some ways be redundant. General and flag officers are already trained to know right from wrong. "The key here isn't that they don't know the rules, they get plenty of training on the rules," said a retired Navy one-star with extensive experience working for senior-most military officers.
Rather, the key is to ensure that top leaders are surrounding themselves not with yes-men, but with people who are empowered and capable of telling senior officers what to do and what not to do. "You have to have people who come in and shut the door and tell you, ‘I know this is innocuous but you have to be careful of the impression here,'" the admiral said. "Senior leaders can slide down a slippery slope where they don't know what they're doing."
Allen will remain commander of ISAF in Kabul until the Senate acts on the nomination for Gen. Joe Dunford, who is assistant commandant of the Marine Corps. If confirmed, he could head to Kabul by early winter to relieve Allen of his command. According to current regulations, after 60 days Allen would either have to be re-nominated for the job in Europe or another job, or his rank would revert to two-stars. At that time, only Panetta or his successor could determine the level at which Allen would retire.