Politics & Policy

Say No to David Petraeus

David Petraeus outside a federal courthouse in Charlotte, N.C., in 2013. (Reuters photo: Chris Keane)
He did his country a great service, but he also broke the law.

If Donald Trump doesn’t understand now, he will eventually. Integrity and truth ultimately do matter, and if he wants to be a successful president, he’s going to have to appoint people to high office who won’t violate the public’s trust.

That means appointing more men like Neil Gorsuch and James Mattis. And it means keeping David Petraeus out of the White House.

This is a painful thing to say. I served under General Petraeus (far, far under, I was a lowly captain in an armored cavalry squadron deployed roughly 100 miles from Baghdad) during the Surge, and I saw with my own eyes the power of effective leadership, the right strategy, and the proper application of force. He came into Iraq at a time of maximum chaos and was instrumental in transforming an emerging and bloody defeat into a stunning battlefield victory.

It’s no understatement to say that by the September 2008 — when he turned over command in Iraq to General Raymond Odierno — he was an American hero, one of the great generals of modern times. Then he betrayed his family, violated the law, and established a precedent for prosecutorial favoritism that haunted America during the 2016 presidential election.

The facts of his case are simple and disappointing. Petraeus had an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, and provided her with notebooks containing highly classified information. Compounding his offense, he apparently initially lied to the FBI when they confronted him in 2012, denying that he had provided any classified information to his mistress.

Lest anyone think the disclosure was harmless — more the by-product of overclassification than an action that risked national security — consider the information he shared with Broadwell. As the Washington Post reported, the notebooks “contained code words for secret intelligence programs, the identities of covert officers, and information about war strategy and deliberative discussions with the National Security Council.”

This was a serious offense, but rather than serve the prison time that virtually any service member would receive under similar (or lesser) circumstances, Petraeus received a sweetheart plea deal. In exchange for pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified information, Petraeus was sentenced to two years of probation and ordered to pay a $100,000 fine.

It pays to be powerful.

Prescient observers knew that the deal would probably establish a new standard for the FBI, one that would make high-profile prosecutions more difficult. And indeed, as the New York Times later reported, “the shadow” of the Petraeus plea deal “loomed over” Hillary Clinton’s e-mail case. In short, if the DOJ was going to plead to mere probation a case involving lies to the FBI and the admitted intentional transfer of classified information to an unauthorized person, how could it vigorously prosecute a case with a higher-profile defendant in which the evidence seemed to show a less proof of intent?

Rather than serve the prison time that virtually any service member would receive under similar (or lesser) circumstances, Petraeus received a sweetheart plea deal.

If the DOJ had done its job properly in prosecuting Petraeus, the political hurdles in investigating and prosecuting Clinton would have been far lower, and the confidence in law enforcement far higher. The DOJ could have pointed to a clear example of its willingness to take on high-profile defendants, and Team Clinton wouldn’t have had the Petraeus example to point to as cover for its own wrongdoing.

Finally, if the Trump administration wants to maintain a shred of credibility, the same team that hyped and stoked the “lock her up” chant should be the last team to hire (as national-security adviser, no less) a man who actually pled guilty to mishandling classified information. It would be an act of breathtaking cynicism, even for Donald Trump.

It’s time for General Petraeus to exit the public stage. He has done great good for his country, and we can acknowledge and honor him for that service. He also broke the law and exploited his power and position to escape justice. At a minimum, that should mean he is no longer welcome to serve in the United States government. Now is not the time to exchange one lying public servant for another. Mr. President, find another man of General Mattis’s caliber. The public needs to trust its national security team, and — sadly — it learned that it cannot trust David Petraeus. 

— David French is a staff writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, an attorney, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.


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