Former four-star general and CIA chief David Petraeus pleaded guilty to one count of retaining classified information for handing over information in personal notebooks to his biographer girlfriend in 2011. He agreed to pay a $40,000 fine; prosecutors said they would recommend two years' probation instead of prison, although a judge could decide otherwise. It's a sad close to a government career for the man whose counterinsurgency strategy turned around the war in Iraq. He's an American hero who seemed all that much more upright when he resigned in November 2012 after admitting to an affair that compromised his position — without drama and after quickly owning up to his mistakes.
Except he didn't come completely clean; America now knows — because it's in the official record — Petraeus lied to the FBI. That's a serious offense. But should he go to prison?
On one side, Petraeus supporters, such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., argued that Petraeus had done too much for the country to be discarded in a prison cell. In January, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the Department of Justice should not prosecute the former CIA chief, as he had "suffered enough."
Yes, D.C. pols tend to be quick to forgive crimes committed in the cause of self-aggrandizement. No need to wonder why.
On the other side, critics see a fine and probation as special treatment. The Los Angeles Times contrasted the Petraeus plea bargain with those of convicted leakers Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, a former State Department contractor (13 months in prison), and John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer (30 months). "The whiff of a double standard is overwhelming. If anything, a leader at Petraeus' level should be held to a higher standard than lower-level officials or contractors," the paper editorialized. (Kim's leak risked compromising U.S. intelligence gathering in North Korea. Kiriakou revealed the identity of a covert agent.)
But there are good reasons to spare Petraeus from prison. David Deitch, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice, told me he sees little public interest in sending Petraeus to prison, as his conduct "never really posed" a risk to national security. As for Petraeus' successful military record, Deitch believes it is something judges consider. Looking at a defendant's life is "not a dodge; it's part of the process."
Others contrast Petraeus with leakers on a grand scale — Chelsea Manning, the former Army private now serving a 35-year sentence, and self-proclaimed National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, now a fugitive in Moscow. The Chelsea Manning Support Network charged Petraeus with leaking "to his mistress, who was writing his biography, for personal gain," as opposed to Manning, who leaked "for the public good." Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., told U.S. News & World Report that Petraeus broke the law "to impress a girlfriend. Edward Snowden released confidential information in order to bring attention to overwhelming and pervasive constitutional violations."
Last weekend, I watched "Citizenfour," the Academy Award-winning Laura Poitras documentary on Snowden. Talk about self-aggrandizement. For almost two hours, I was treated to one-shots of Snowden typing on his laptop on a hotel bed, playing with his hair in a hotel bathroom and discussing how he didn't really want the NSA leak story to be all about him. But we never got answers to the questions that challenge the Snowden hagiography. How did Snowden really end up in Moscow? What does Snowden think of Russia's record on surveillance and treatment of "whistleblowers"?
Petraeus was wrong to keep handwritten highly classified notes and even more wrong to hand them over to Paula Broadwell, but that's as far as the information went. As former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow noted, "Petraeus mishandled classified information — but there was no intent to expose secrets or evidence of damage done (except to himself)."
"Snowden intentionally stole enormous amounts of highly classified information and gleefully made it available to America's enemies," quoth Harlow. "Big difference." Unlike Petraeus, Snowden deliberately released sensitive information that informs terrorist organizations that want to kill Americans on how they can evade detection.
For all his good work, Petraeus had to pay a penalty because he lied to the FBI. But there is no need to send him to prison, because the system can survive his folly and no intelligence asset was hurt. You cannot say that about Manning or Snowden; the system cannot survive rogue actors who decide they have a right to broadcast state secrets. "It seems to be that unless you are willing to aggressively prosecute the classified nature" of U.S. intelligence, Deitch told me, "the whole system collapses on itself."