In Animal Farm, George Orwell famously wrote: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” And today, few are more equal than David Petraeus.
Imagine, for the sake of argument, that you or I had a sensitive government job. If you or I were brazen enough to lie to the FBI – if we told the feds, for instance, that we hadn’t shared highly classified material with unauthorized people when in truth we had done it – we’d surely be ticketed for jail. Because lying to the FBI, and sharing highly classified material with unauthorized people, are big-time felonies.
But if you’re David Petraeus – former Army general and bipartisan demigod – and you’ve done those very things, you get a slap on the wrist and a punched ticket to rehabilitation. This is manifestly unfair to the people who have been prosecuted and jailed by the Obama administration for doing arguably less than what Petraeus did, but, hey, Orwell covered that ground in his farm fable 70 years ago.
Everyone has been busy speculating about whether Hillary Clinton shared classified material on her private email server, but Petraeus actually did it. What’s fascinating – and so symptomatic about how politics works – is that his crime has barely registered on the public radar, and has been met by a shrug in the highest echelons of government.
When Petraeus helmed the CIA, he illegally shared classified material with his biographer (who was also his extramarital lover), material that included the names of covert intelligence officers, and when queried by the FBI in the fall of 2012, he denied doing it. This was quite ironic, because just days before he met with the FBI, he had publicly rebuked a CIA officer for illegally sharing classified information.
What he said: “Oaths do matter, and there are indeed consequences for those who believe they are above laws that protect our fellow officers and enable American intelligence agencies to operate with the requisite degree of secrecy.”
The rebuked CIA officer, John Kiriakou, went to jail in 2013 for giving a journalist the name of an interrogator in the agency’s anti-terrorist program. Kiriakou stayed in jail until last month. Another case – now in the news – involves a former State Department contractor named Stephen Kim, who’s currently serving 13 months for having shared classified info about North Korea with Fox News.
Yet Petraeus is the one who got the sweetheart deal from the Justice Department; earlier this month, he copped a plea to one count of mishandling classified material (the lying-to-the-FBI felony was dropped), in exchange for no jail and a $40,000 fine. And the fine is chump change, because Petraeus chairs a think tank subsidiary of a private equity firm. (Formal sentencing is next month, when a judge could theoretically scuttle the deal, but don’t bet on it.)
Nobody seems particularly upset about this kid-gloves treatment – except for the federal prosecutors and the FBI agents who wanted to charge Petraeus with a felony; and except for Stephen Kim’s defense lawyer. In a March 6 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, attorney Abbe Lowell said it was unfair that Kim sits in jail while Petraeus gets off easy: “The decision to permit General Petraeus to plead guilty to a misdemeanor demonstrates more clearly than ever the profound double standard…”
So why has there been nary a ripple in Washington about Petraeus getting off easy? Because both parties find it convenient to indulge him.
The Obama administration, which reportedly forged the sweetheart deal via Holder, wants to tap Petraeus as an adviser in the fight against ISIS. (On that front, it’s apparently all hands on deck.) That way, the White House also ensures that Petraeus won’t become a rogue critic of Obama’s foreign policy. As LBJ indecorously said of J. Edgar Hoover, “It’s better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.”
As for the Republicans, there’s no way they’d knock a guy whom they once touted as a GOP presidential nominee. Rest assured that if a longstanding Obama insider had done what Petraeus did, and had gotten the same sweetheart deal that Petraeus got, Republicans would’ve hammered Obama and Holder for being soft on national security. But Petraeus is so revered by Republicans – remember his Iraq “surge?” – that Fox News chairman Roger Ailes sent word in 2011 that he’d be willing to quit Fox in order to run a Petraeus presidential campaign.
Is it fair that Petraeus get these bipartisan perks while lesser animals do not? Hardly. In the words of ex-National Security Agency officer/whistleblower Thomas Drake, who was decimated by legal bills after being prosecuted for sharing classified material with The Baltimore Sun, “If you’re high enough up, you play by different rules.”
Or, as one of the street kids in The Wire lamented in the show’s very first scene, “Life just be that way I guess.”