While the spate of ink over the scandal that toppled former CIA director David Petraeus has abated a bit, there is little sign that the public significance of the episode has penetrated. Both Petraeus and Paula Broadwell let it be known through surrogates that they "screwed up," that they are personally "devastated," and that they are working to repair the damage done to their families. But I have not heard either of them or any of us for that matter -- members of the national security community -- weigh our public responsibilities in the drama and its impact on institutions we claim to cherish.
Plenty of people were pleased to consider themselves acquaintances of Dave Petraeus. I have known him for about four years; we corresponded frequently about Afghanistan, and I served in his Kabul headquarters on loan from the Joint Staff during his transition into command in the summer of 2010. While real affection clearly infused some of these relationships, most were also transactional. People made professional mileage on their links to Petraeus; he used them to get his views out. They served him in one way or another; he rewarded them with positions, connections, or implicit endorsements.
Many of the same people consider themselves part of the national security community -- they make careers on their avowed expertise. But membership in such groups, with the stature and privileges it confers, entails responsibilities.
I can name a dozen people who knew things did not look right between Petraeus and Broadwell at the international military headquarters in Kabul in the first half of 2011, when Broadwell was working on her biography of Petraeus. It almost didn't matter what was actually going on behind the closed door of that office. The pair spent too many hours in there, too late at night, the public affairs officer sent away. It is difficult to describe how dramatically such behavior clashes with the rigorously professional demeanor expected in a military headquarters, especially a deployed one. And that summer, when they returned from Kabul, the charged vibe between the two remained on display in Washington.
In a community, friends -- and even military subordinates -- bear some collective responsibility for the behavior of their friends or superiors, as uncomfortable as it may be to intervene. Even more importantly, those who claim a stake in national security policy ought to bear some collective responsibility for the national interest. That national interest, if not Petraeus's welfare, should have outweighed any reticence. Yet none of us, that I know of -- including me -- asked him a tough question.
Ultimately, of course, the responsibility for this debacle and the costs it inflicted not just on two families, but on hundreds of serving and former members of the military, on the standards underpinning the institution, on U.S. national security decision-making and public integrity, must lie with the two adults who acted with such breathtaking recklessness. But it is unclear whether either of them has taken that responsibility to heart.
Prompted by her recently-hired public relations firm, Broadwell sent out an appeal late last month to respected contacts, asking them to talk to Fox News or other reporters about "the Paula [they] know." Her words of regret in one such e-mail for what "has occurred" don't even span a full sentence. "Much," she quickly adds, "has been spun and twisted out of control in the press."
Many who did encounter her -- as I did beginning in 2009 -- knew a Paula who was undeniably intelligent and aggressive, but whose ambition outshone her qualifications, a Paula who consistently fell below the standards of the communities whose credentials she wished to appropriate. Her vaunted Harvard Kennedy School master's degree was supposed to be a Ph.D., but her academic work was substandard and she was asked to leave the program. Her biography of Petraeus -- largely penned by a coauthor -- was considered by no one in either the editing or the national security fields to be a creditable work of narrative non-fiction, nor certainly journalism.