Leaving aside the moral implications of the scandal which caused General Petraeus to resign as head of the CIA, this is an issue which demands serious attention from the American defence establishment. We know that Petraeus’ alleged mistress Paula Broadwell is said to have accessed his emails, and that she sent threatening emails to another lady, Jill Kelly, who she believed was getting too close to the General. Now it also transpires that General John Allen has been sending between 20,000 and 30,000 pages of ‘inappropriate emails’ to Kelly. The emails are said to have been sent from 2010-2012 which, even using the lowest figure amounts to something like 27 emails a day. That’s a mind boggling figure in ordinary circumstances, let alone when considering that Allen is commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

It is all rather reminiscent of the Profumo affair when it transpired that John Profumo’s mistress was a Soviet Spy. There’s no suggestion whatsoever that either Broadwell or Kelly are spies for foreign agencies, but there are two broader points of principle from that incident which must be considered here.

The first is that the prospect for sensitive information to be compromised is almost always heightened in such circumstances, even when there is no nefarious foreign plot. American journalist Eli Lake has asked whether Broadwell inadvertently leaked unreported information about the Benghazi attack which killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens. In the aftermath of the attack ‘Broadwell seemed to speak on behalf of Petraeus’ writes Lake. This is a serious charge particularly as Lake has produced the most authoritative reporting on the Benghazi incident to date.

The second issue is one of leadership. Members of the intelligence community are routinely warned against engaging in extra-marital affairs, and frequently lose their jobs when they do. The potential for compromise by hostile agencies is simply too great. It is unlikely the director of the CIA would be as susceptible to blackmail as his subordinates, but institutional cultures flow from the top. Indeed, just days before the scandal broke Broadwell wrote a piece on ‘General David Petraeus’s Rules for Living’. Rule number one? Lead by example. As allegations of impropriety now threaten to engulf Allen too, the U.S. administration must ensure it sets the example it wants the defence establishment to follow by acting decisively.

In the latest issue of the Spectator, Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com, sets about General Petraeus’ military record and personality cult, describing him as ‘the Don Draper of the Pentagon’. You can read the piece here.

Tags: Barack Obama, David Petraeus, John Allen, US politics