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Published: Wednesday, 11/14/2012

Falling from grace

CIA Director David Petraeus’ meteoric rise through the ranks of the military and government, fueled by ability and ambition, crashed on Friday, following an FBI investigation revealing an extramarital affair with his 40-year-old biographer, Paula Broadwell. It’s another powerful reminder that even the most powerful men — perhaps especially them — are subject to the same fits of passions and poor judgment as the rest of humanity.

So far, however, no evidence suggests that Mr. Petraeus’ fall from grace resulted from anything but a personal failure, not an institutional collapse. No national security secrets appeared to have been compromised, and Mr. Petraeus is not under investigation.

An inquiry by Congress is in order. House and Senate Intelligence Committee members are entitled to know why the FBI didn’t tell them, or top officials in the Justice Department, earlier about the investigation. It’s at least conceivable that politics played a role in how the investigation came to light. Still, Republicans should not exaggerate the stakes to launch another ill-conceived showdown with the administration.

It’s true that FBI officials did not inform the leaders of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees about the investigation before last week. By law, the panels should know about significant intelligence developments. Still, no evidence suggests that the FBI investigation uncovered important information concerning national security, such as leaks of classified information.

FBI officials stumbled onto the affair after investigating a complaint several months ago about harassing emails sent by Ms. Broadwell to a Petraeus family friend, Jill Kelley, 37, of Tampa. Law enforcement officials say Ms. Broadwell was apparently jealous of Ms. Kelley’s friendship with Mr. Petraeus.

When FBI agents started to examine Ms. Broadwell’s emails, they found exchanges between her and Mr. Petraeus that revealed their affair, but agents uncovered no security breaches.

The FBI notified Mr. Petraeus’ boss, James Clapper, Jr., director of national intelligence, late Nov. 6. Mr. Clapper told President Obama’s senior national security staff the next night that Mr. Petraeus was considering resigning. Mr. Obama was told the morning of Nov. 8. That afternoon, knowing the affair would go public, Mr. Petraeus had no choice but to offer to resign. On Nov. 9, Mr. Obama accepted his resignation.

As a decorated four-star general, Petraeus led U.S. war efforts in Afghanistan and turned around the war in Iraq.

This is not how Mr. Petraeus would have chosen to end a splendid public career, and he undoubtedly caused pain to his wife of nearly 38 years. But to call these revelations a personal tragedy, as some observers have, is a bit hyperbolic. Mr. Petraeus, 60, will be fine. Let’s reserve the word “tragedy” for mass starvation and terminal cancer.

Nor has Mr. Petraeus done irreparable harm to the nation he has served so well. The CIA, which he led for 14 months, would have benefited from his extraordinary creativity, but other able people stand ready to serve.

While unfortunate, a personal failure by a talented but all-too-human public servant should not cause enduring harm to the nation — unless it becomes another source of partisan strife.



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