Gen. Petraeus: Too Big to Jail

From the Archive: Retired Gen. David Petraeus confessed on Thursday to giving sensitive government secrets to his mistress and then lying about it to the FBI, but will get no jail time, only two years probation and a fine, showing that he is too big to jail, as ex -CIA analyst Ray McGovern predicted in March.

By Ray McGovern (Originally published on March 5, 2015)

The leniency shown former CIA Director (and retired General) David Petraeus by the Justice Department in sparing him prison time for the serious crimes that he has committed puts him in the same preferential, immune-from-incarceration category as those running the financial institutions of Wall Street, where, incidentally, Petraeus now makes millions. By contrast, “lesser” folks and particularly the brave men and women who disclose government crimes get to serve time, even decades, in jail.

Petraeus is now a partner at KKR, a firm specializing in large leveraged buyouts, and his hand-slap guilty plea to a misdemeanor for mishandling government secrets should not interfere with his continued service at the firm. KKR’s founders originally worked at Bear Stearns, the institution that failed in early 2008 at the beginning of the meltdown of the investment banking industry later that year.

Gen. David Petraeus in a photo with his biographer/mistress Paula Broadwell. (U.S. government photo)

Gen. David Petraeus in a photo with his biographer/mistress Paula Broadwell. (U.S. government photo)

Despite manifestly corrupt practices like those of subprime mortgage lenders, none of those responsible went to jail after the 2008-09 financial collapse which cost millions of Americans their jobs and homes. The bailed-out banks were judged “too big to fail” and the bankers “too big to jail.”

Two years ago, in a highly revealing slip of the tongue, Attorney General Eric Holder explained to Congress that it can “become difficult” to prosecute major financial institutions because they are so large that a criminal charge could pose a threat to the economy or perhaps what he meant was an even bigger threat to the economy.

Holder tried to walk back his unintended slip into honesty a year later, claiming, “There is no such thing as ‘too big to jail.’” And this bromide was dutifully echoed by Holder’s successor, Loretta Lynch, at her confirmation hearing in late January.

Words, though, are cheap. The proof is in the pudding. It remains true that not one of the crooked bankers or investment advisers who inflicted untold misery on ordinary people, gambling away much of their life savings, has been jailed. Not one.

And now Petraeus, who gave his biographer/mistress access to some of the nation’s most sensitive secrets and then lied about it to the FBI, has also been shown to be too big to jail. Perhaps Holder decided it would be a gentlemanly thing to do on his way out of office to take this awkward issue off Lynch’s initial to-do list and spare her the embarrassment of demonstrating once again that equality under the law has become a mirage; that not only big banks, but also big shots like Petraeus who was Official Washington’s most beloved general before becoming CIA director are, in fact, too big to jail.

It strikes me, in a way, as fitting that even on his way out the door, Eric Holder would not miss the opportunity to demonstrate his propensity for giving hypocrisy a bad name.

A Slap on Wrist for Serious Crimes

The Justice Department let David Petraeus cop a plea after requiring him to admit that he had shared with his biographer/mistress eight black notebooks containing highly classified information and then lied about it to FBI investigators. Serious crimes? The following quotes are excerpted from “U.S. v. David Howell Petraeus: Factual Basis in support of the Plea Agreement” offered by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, Charlotte Division:

“17. During his tenure as Commander of ISAF in Afghanistan, defendant DAVID HOWELL PETRAEUS maintained bound, five-by-eight-inch notebooks that contained his daily schedule and classified and unclassified notes he took during official meetings, conferences, and briefings. A total of eight such books (hereinafter the “Black Books”) encompassed the period of defendant DAVID HOWELL PETRAEUS’S ISAF [Afghanistan] command and collectively contained classified information regarding the identities of covert officers, war strategy, intelligence capabilities and mechanisms, diplomatic discussions, quotes and deliberative discussions from high-level National Security Council meetings, and defendant DAVID HOWELL PETRAEUS’s discussions with the President of the United States of America. [emphasis added]

“18. The Black Books contained national defense information, including Top Secret//SCI and code word information.”

Despite the sensitivity of the notebooks and existing law and regulations, Petraeus did not surrender them to proper custody when he returned to the U.S. after being nominated to become the Director of the CIA. According to the Court’s “Factual Basis,” Petraeus’s biographer/mistress recorded a conversation of Aug. 4, 2011, in which she asks about the “Black Books.” The Court statement continues:

“ [Petraeus] ‘Umm, well, they’re really I mean they are highly classified, some of them.  I mean there’s code word stuff in there.’ On or about August 27, 2011, defendant DAVID HOWELL PETRAEUS sent an email to his biographer in which he agreed to provide the Black Books to his biographer. On or about August 28, 2011, defendant DAVID HOWEL PETRAEUS delivered the Black Books to a private residence in Washington, D.C. where his biographer was staying. On or about September 1, 2011, defendant DAVID HOWELL PETRAEUS retrieved the Black Books from the D.C. private residence and returned them to his own Arlington, Virginia home.” [emphasis added]

I would think it a safe guess that Petraeus’s timing can be attributed to his awareness that his privacy and freedom of movement was about to be greatly diminished, once his CIA personal security detail started keeping close track of him from his first day on the job as CIA Director, Sept. 6, 2011.

“32. On or about October 26, 2012, defendant DAVID HOWELL PETRAEUS was interviewed by two FBI special agents. [He] was advised that the special agents were conducting a criminal investigation. PETRAEUS stated that (a) he had never provided any classified information to his biographer, and (b) he had never facilitated the provision of classified information to his biographer. These statements were false. Defendant DAVID HOWELL PETRAEUS then and there knew that he previously shared the Black Books with his biographer.” [emphasis added]

Lying to the FBI? No problem. As “Expose Facts” blogger Marcy Wheeler immediately commented: “For lying to the FBI a crime that others go to prison for for months and years Petraeus will just get a two point enhancement on his sentencing guidelines. The Department of Justice basically completely wiped out the crime of covering up his crime of leaking some of the country’s most sensitive secrets to his mistress.” [emphasis added]

Talk about “prosecutorial discretion” or, in this case, indiscretion giving Petraeus a fine and probation but no felony conviction or prison time for what he did! Lesser lights are not so fortunate. Just ask Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning who is serving a 35-year prison sentence for disclosing information to the public about U.S. war crimes and other abuses. Or Edward Snowden, who is stuck in Russia facing a U.S. indictment on espionage charges for informing the people about pervasive and unconstitutional U.S. government surveillance of common citizens.

Or former CIA officer John Kiriakou who was sent to prison for inadvertently revealing the name of one Agency official cognizant of CIA torture. Here’s what Neil MacBride, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said then: “The government has a vital interest in protecting the identities of those involved in covert operations. Leaks of highly sensitive, closely held and classified information compromise national security and can put individual lives in danger.”

When, on Oct. 23, 2012, Kiriakou acquiesced to a plea deal requiring two-and-a-half years in federal prison, then CIA Director Petraeus sent a sanctimonious Memorandum to Agency employees applauding Kiriakou’s conviction and noting, “It marks an important victory for our agency  there are indeed consequences for those who believe they are above the laws that protect our fellow officers and enable American intelligence agencies to operate with the requisite degree of secrecy.” [emphasis added]

Consequences for Kiriakou but not, as we now know, for Petraeus.

If you feel no discomfort at this selective application of the law, you might wish to scroll or page back to the “Factual Basis” for Petraeus’s Plea Agreement and be reminded that it was just three days after his lecture to CIA employees about the sanctity of protecting the identity of covert agents that Petraeus lied to FBI investigators on Oct. 26, 2012 about his sharing such details with his mistress.

Why Did Petraeus Do It?

Old soldiers like Petraeus (indeed, most aging but still ambitious men) have been known to end up doing self-destructive things by letting themselves be flattered by the attentions of younger women. This may offer a partial explanation human weakness even in a self-styled larger-than-life super-Mensch. But I see the motivation as mostly vainglory. (The two are not mutually exclusive, of course.)

Looking back at Petraeus’s record of overweening ambition, it seems likely he was motivated first and foremost by a desire to ensure that his biographer would be able to extract from the notebooks some juicy morsels he may not have remembered to tell her about. This might enhance his profile as Warrior-Scholar-“King David,” the image that he has assiduously cultivated and promoted, with the help of an adulating neocon-dominated media.

Petraeus’s presidential ambitions have been an open secret. And with his copping a plea to a misdemeanor, his “rehabilitation” seems to have already begun. He has told friends that he would like to serve again in government and they immediately relayed that bright hope to the media.

Sen. John McCain was quick to call the whole matter “closed.” A strong supporter of Petraeus, McCain added this fulsome praise: “At a time of grave security challenges around the world, I hope that General Petraeus will continue to provide his outstanding service and leadership to our nation, as he has throughout his distinguished career.”

And Michael O’Hanlon, Brookings’ neocon military specialist who rarely gets anything right, spoke true to form to the New York Times: “The broader nation needs his advice, and I think it’s been evident that people still want to hear from him. People are forgiving and I know he made a mistake. But he’s also a national hero and a national treasure.”

The “mainstream media” is trapped in its undeserved adulation for Petraeus’s “heroism.” It is virtually impossible, for example, for them to acknowledge that his ballyhooed, official-handout-based “success” in training and equipping tens of thousands of crack Iraqi troops was given the lie when those same troops ran away (the officers took helicopters) and left their weapons behind at the first sight of ISIL fighters a year ago.

Equally sham were media claims of the “success” for the “surges” of 30,000 troops sent into Iraq (2007) and 33,000 into Afghanistan (2009). Each “surge” squandered the lives of about 1,000 U.S. troops for nothing yes, nothing except in the case of Iraq buying time for President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to get out of town without a clear-cut defeat hanging around their necks.

Many of the supposed successes of Petraeus’s Iraqi “surge” also predated the “surge,” including a high-tech program for killing top militants such as Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the formation of the so-called Sunni Awakening, both occurring in 2006 under the previous field commanders. And, Bush’s principal goal of the “surge” to create political space for a fuller Sunni-Shiite reconciliation was never accomplished. [See’s “The Surge Myth’s Deadly Result.”]

And last, it is important to note that David Petraeus does not have a corner on the above-the-law attitudes and behavior of previous directors of the CIA. The kid-gloves treatment he has been accorded, however, will increase chances that future directors will feel they can misbehave seriously and suffer no serious personal consequence.

The virtual immunity enjoyed by the well connected even when they lie to the FBI or tell whoppers in sworn testimony to Congress (as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has done) feeds the propensity to prioritize one’s own personal ambition and to delegate a back seat to legitimate national security concerns even basic things like giving required protection to properly classified information, including the identity of covert officers.

One might call this all-too-common syndrome Self-Aggrandizing Dismissiveness (SAD). Sadly, Petraeus is merely the latest exemplar of the SAD syndrome. The unbridled ambitions of some of his predecessors at CIA the arrogant John Deutch, for example have been equally noxious and destructive. But we’ll leave that for the next chapter.

[For more on Petraeus’s corruption and his close ties to self-interested neoconservatives, see “Neocons Guided Petraeus on Afghan War.”]

Full Disclosure: Petraeus has not yet answered McGovern’s letter of Feb. 3 regarding why McGovern was barred from a public speaking event by Petraeus in New York City on Oct. 30, 2014, and then was roughly arrested by police and jailed for the night. McGovern wonders if Petraeus failed to respond because he was pre-occupied working out his Plea Agreement.

Ray McGovern worked for a total of 27 years in all four of CIA’s main directorates. He served under seven Presidents and nine CIA Directors, and is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). He now works for Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington.

8 comments for “Gen. Petraeus: Too Big to Jail

  1. Hugh R. Hays
    April 24, 2015 at 10:23

    Thank you Ray McGovern for your article. Yesterday 6 years of Injustice hopefully came to an end with the replacement of Eric Holder. His botched role in the Veco-Alaska legislative
    scandal about oil taxes, his choices to block prosecution of Bill Allen by the state of Alaska for violations of the Mann Act, to not cooperate with either the Anchorage Police Department or the state of Alaska, and to stonewall Senator Lisa Murkowski when she asked him why are just a few more of Holders actions that don’t make sense to me. The passes to Petraeus, the bankers, Mark Rich by Holder, McCain, Feinstein, the media, many Americans disturbs me.
    The double standard of punishment of Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, John Kirakou and David Petraeus is too much.

  2. Joe Tedesky
    April 24, 2015 at 08:44

    I picture Brando crying out, ‘I just want to be somebody’, and that image would represent the rest of us excluding our nations best and brightest elite. I had a friend who was one of a few lawyers who worked for Peter Rodino during the Watergate Hearings. I recall asking her if Nixon would get a harsh punishment. My lawyer friend looked and me and said, ‘why no, because they (the politicians standing in judgement of Nixon) were guilty of their many secretive sins’. At the time I came away shocked, and very much disappointed. Yet, that’s how it works. It isn’t right, but still the machine churns on and on that way.

    Mr McGovern should be listened too for many reasons. While Manning wished to warn us all of just how terrible things are, Petraus on the other hand was fostering his big general ego. Broadwell fits a profile of a spy so much so, that considering who David Petreaus is he should have guarded his official secrets much better than it appears he did. Sounds very rookie to me. In fact he should be court marshalled. People often get court marshalled for doing stupid things.

    Let’s just hope that Petraeus never gets a Presidential pardon.

    • paul wichmann
      April 26, 2015 at 05:03

      “the machine churns on” to the singular end of the pleasure of listening to its own whir and grind.

  3. Hillary
    April 24, 2015 at 06:55

    A serious miscarriage of justice.
    The judge felt that Petreaus merely made a “serious lapse in judgment”
    Senator McCain claims Petraeus is a genuine American hero who may have turned Iraq around with the “Surge” ?
    Meanwhile Bradley Manning ( now Chelsea Manning ) was sentenced to 35 years in prison, reduction in rank to private, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and a dishonorable discharge.

  4. F. G. Sanford
    April 23, 2015 at 23:29

    “One might call this all-too-common syndrome Self-Aggrandizing Dismissiveness (SAD).”

    Ray, I hope your trip goes well and you get back safe and sound. I can’t wait to read the next chapter! Jeez, I bet you could write a whole textbook on military-industrial sociopolitical pathophysiology. You could include stuff like, “Defense Industry Legal Deception and Obfuscation” syndrome, “Assassination, Subversion and Seduction Hazards Obviating Legal and Ethical Standards” syndrome, “Strategic Hidden Interdiction Transiting Hostile Environments and Adversary Deception” syndrome and “Falsified or Unreported Collateral Kinetic Nullification of Unverified Target Status” syndrome. You’d probably have to include a special appendix to cover some of the more esoteric conditions, like “Battlefield Opprobrium Zealotry Orchestration” syndrome. Cross references to highlight common manifestations of the more mundane conditions, like “Security Unit Coordinator for Key Undercover Personnel” syndrome would also be helpful. Some of these conditions are self limiting and progress from an initial acute phase to mild, chronic conditions, like “General Officer Optional Financial Benefit Accumulation and Lucrative Lustration” syndrome. Some sources note that the condition responds dramatically to “Basic Intensive Gratification Treatment Administration Titrated According to Symptoms”. Those reports are anecdotal, so actual therapeutic results may vary. But, you could cover all that and more! It would be a daunting task, but you could do it. With so many syndromes to describe, you’d probably have to come up with some acronyms. I’m thinking that’d be the hard part.

  5. Zachary Smith
    April 23, 2015 at 20:44

    While checking Google News a minute ago I saw a ‘Petraeus sentenced’ story. On a whim I put those two words in the search bar to see how many results got reported. Over 164,000. Ok, let’s try again and add the phrase “John Kiriakou”. This time there were a whole 1100 results.

    It seems to me that the Corporate Media doesn’t want readers to make any connection between the two cases.

  6. elmerfudzie
    April 23, 2015 at 20:17

    First let me say, It’s not often that Abel rushes to Cain’s defense, but here it goes…Ray, your article seems to promote a tongue-in-cheek response to Petraeus’ sins of adultery. That said, at least he chose his lover- carefully and by that I mean the naughty general wasn’t exactly sleeping with a mobsters moll (example, Exner and JFK). Broadwell is after all, a West Point Grad eh? nor was he slack or careless with very secret military material. That internet Intel information is so labile and at the same time quickly becomes useless to our enemies. Frequently such info is virtually unimportant within hours of publication. Besides, who in their right mind dream-pt up a policy that trusts encryption thru e-mails? Nuts! probably some teen hacker-nerd with nothing but idle hands could break into that one thousand plus bit encryption method? Even the more complex, secure bit coin transactions, better than military?, can be brought down with some extraordinary effort. If anything, this so called, lapse in security, episode almost proves that we need a return to hard copy, plain paper summaries of hot Intel items. Important communications should be hand delivered by special courier, it’s the best way, I now jokingly recall the old Mission Impossible theme: this tape will self destruct in five seconds, poof! Secondly, our voters and top Pentagon brass, have a tendency to share in at least one belief system, That it’s good to promote those who have “passion” or what was once referred to as fire in the belly, or those with a certain personal charisma, “being well connected” and possessing high intelligence and or formal education. Weeelllll, these qualities do indeed have a hidden price attached to them. Over the last hundred years of American history, the citizenry at large loath the childlike or intellectually limited, such as Teddy Roosevelt or Truman-the bible thumper. Our general public as well as top brass have succumbed to the notion that passion, glam, intrigue, womanizing, murdering (in or out-of-office) and prevarication are far more tantalizing and upon reflection, were “qualities” once found in leaders like IKE, JFK, LBJ, Henry K and lest we forget, Clinton! Yeah, Tricky Dick, if your reading this from beyond, I’m slappen ’em down for Ya, just in case they try and take the high ground. RIP, from an old hippie, even tho I know you won’t be enjoying any, Peace.

    • bill
      April 29, 2015 at 22:06

      The article speaks to the way different individuals, depending on how high up the elitist ladder you climb, are treated by our criminal justice system. Shame on those who defend and support criminal behavior that goes virtually unpunished by some and have nothing to say about the ones that are dealt the most sever punishment.

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