Petraeus, On Further Reflection (R.I.P. John O’Neill)

14 Nov
November 14, 2012

What follows is lifted from the comments to my previous post on this issue.  I’m reposting it simply because as I was engaged in responding to this particular comment, I realized — even to my own surprise — how close the Petraeus imbroglio corresponds to the the tragic story of my old friend and source, John O’Neill.   It’s worth posting on its own, I think.

HENLEYTX11 says:(Edit)

Churchill famously said “The price of greatness is responsibility”, which is something Clinton has never accepted nor assumed. His presidency was, and his post-presidency is rife with examples of assigning blame to others for his own personal and professional shortcomings. And I’m writing as someone who worked for him in on a national level in his 1992 campaign. As for Petraeus, I have no doubt that Petraeus did not resing but was forced out, and that his September 14th statement in reference to Benghazi was informed and/or prompted by the knowledge that the White House was aware of his relationship with Mrs. Broadwell and might soon use it against him. Both Clinton and Petraeus were and are highly accomplished men, but fail to attain the status of greatness based on any number of reasons, including Churchill’s definition.

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  • DAVID SIMON says:(Edit)

    Well, if you’ve read much on Churchill, you will of course be aware that he may have been the highest functioning alcoholic of the last century. I say that with even greater respect for the man and his accomplishments, but I say it with the certitude of someone who has seen. on display, in the War Rooms exhibit in London, a detail of just how much alcohol the prime minister consumed when he was leading Britain through its darkest days. Beginning with his waking glass of champagne and culminating in his last bedtime brandy, the drinking that this man did every day of his life is medically astonishing. The price of greatness may be responsibility, but woe for the Twentieth Century if a bunch of journalists and moralists had gathered around to make more of an issue of the prime minister’s alcoholism than his governance.

    If that sounds hyperbolic, I will provide you a very real tragedy, costing thousands of American lives, with which I am personally familiar:

    One of my best sources when I was a newspaper reporter was an FBI agent named John O’Neill, who when I met him was the head of the public corruption squad in the Baltimore field office. John was the consummate squad leader and investigator, a man who loved to make a complicated case and who loved to hear the handcuffs click. When he got promoted out of Baltimore, I was almost aggrieved to lose his insight and guidance, not to mention the stories. He was also an incredible collector of women, a serial seducer who backed up girlfriends in every quadrant of the city and beyond. Oh, he was married, too.

    He eventually became the head of the FBI’s national counterterrorism effort, investigating and charging defendants in the bombing of the USS Cole and our East African embassies. As I said, he was very good at what he did. He hunted all the way to Pakistan a suspect who had opened fire on commuters outside the Langley CIA headquarters, and brought that man back for prosecution. He also remained a notorious pussyhound, and his high profile and flash with women became a major irritant to Louis Freeh and others above him at the bureau. Their vision of an FBI supervisor was far more dour and deliberate than John O’Neill could manage. The man had his own table at Elaine’s, for chrissake.

    After the arrests in the USS Cole case, the Yemeni secret police were prohibiting FBI agents from questioning those in their custody and so John went to work on the heads of Yemeni law enforcement, even taking some of them back to New York, wining and dining them, getting them laid, showing them Manhattan on a grand scale. He soon had the top Yemeni security director embracing him, calling him brother. He also had the U.S. Ambassador in Yemen demanding that John be removed from the country because she felt his persona was bigger than hers, that he was, in effect, overshadowing the diplomatic role of the State Department in the country. Her complaints, coupled with resentments within the bureau about John’s lifestyle, led to his being ordered back to the states. Yemeni officials cooled noticeably once O’Neill departed and the Cole defendants were never questioned by US agents after John was removed. Eventually, as the threat level on the Arabian peninsula rose, all of his agents had to be ordered home.

    The end of O’Neill’s career came when his car broke down on the New Jersey turnpike and he was with a girlfriend. He violated security procedures by having the car towed to an FBI facility where he obtained another road car. The woman’s presence at that facility resulted in an internal investigation. That and the fact that John once let a briefcase with classified documents out of his sight for twenty minutes at an FBI seminar on agency pension planning — the briefcase was untouched, but John dutifully reported himself for the lapse — was enough to force his retirement, much to his chagrin. He knew they were going to hit us and hard, and it killed him to no longer be at the point of the counterterroism spear. He looked for the most relevant post he could find in the private sector, becoming director of security for the World Trade Center.

    He was killed when the planes flew into the buildings. He got out of the second tower — we know because he called one of his girlfriends on his cellphone — but he went back in to rescue more people and the tower collapsed. After 911, the Yemenis — told of John’s death — invited the FBI back into their country and provided access to the prisoners O’Neill had been lobbying to interrogate. The prisoners knew the entire 911 plan, down to the names of every hijacker. This story was detailed by PBS Frontline under the title: “The Man Who Knew.”

    Everyone I’ve talked to in the FBI acknowledges that had John’s reputation as a profligate ladies man not accompanied him, he would have easily weathered the internal investigation of the security matters and continued as the head of counterterrorism. And his lobbying effort with the Yemenis would have continued as well. But Mr. Freeh and others equated John’s personal life with his professional endeavors and he was told to take the pension or risk termination.

    And yet, if all of the Americans killed in 911 and all of their families could speak to this dynamic, what do you think they would say? Yes, the price of greatness is responsibility and no sacrifice is too great, and no individual so unexpendable, that we must keep the head of counterterrorism doing his job. Fire his womanizing ass. Or, would they say, who gives a damn who this guy screws or why? He made the Cole case. He supervised the embassies investigation. He went to Pakistan to arrest the man who shot up the CIA headquarters in Langley. He’s the best we have in counterterrorism. Let him do his damn job. And while we’re at it, let Winston Churchill, the greatest wartime leader of the century, drink whatever the hell he wants in as much quantity as he can manage, as long as he continues to lead this country as he does.

    I don’t need rectitude from my leaders. I need competence. I need results. If you have someone better than Petraeus, then that’s one thing. If he’s the best at counterinsurgency, then he is not expendable at this time, when insurgency and our response to it mean actual American lives in the balance.

    *      *      *

    And, to hammer the point home, reflecting precisely on General Petraeus:  If you were a combat soldier or Marine or a CIA operative on the ground in Afghanistan right now, or the family of a combat soldier or Marine or a CIA operative on the ground in Afghanistan right now, who do you want in command of  the American intelligence agency?  The man who is regarded as the better counterinsurgency expert and can’t keep it in his pants?  Or the moral paragon of marital fidelity who is in any way less effective at counterinsurgency.  That’s a real-world choice.  Just as forcing John O’Neill out of the FBI in the run-up to 911 was a real-world choice.

    In any event, rest in peace, John.   Your service is remembered.

    – DS

113 replies
  1. Louise Rubacky says:

    Not sure that Petraeus comes close to John O’Neill in accomplishment. Seems more like the PR generated general:
    http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/the_fall_of_the_american_empire_writ_small_20121121/

    But the first and maybe most disturbing thing about his take-down was the FBI guy who was able to kickstart an investigation into private emails based on the complaint of a friend, whose benefits he may or may not have been interested in.
    -LR

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    • David Simon says:

      as has been said elsewhere here, whether you like petraeus or not isn’t the point. the process is at issue.

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      • Louise Rubacky says:

        Understood; the first part of my comment was in response to:

        “And, to hammer the point home, reflecting precisely on General Petraeus: If you were a combat soldier or Marine or a CIA operative on the ground in Afghanistan right now, or the family of a combat soldier or Marine or a CIA operative on the ground in Afghanistan right now, who do you want in command of the American intelligence agency? ”

        And that’s a very good question, but its answer will not be known to many as long as there’s such an focus on manufacturing heros. The habit of puritanical hypocrisy falls right in line with that.

        Anyway, thanks, a very interesting read.

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  2. baker says:

    Apologies for the link, but I’m unable to post this cartoon in picture form…

    http://azizonomics.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/534545_516000325077617_1562363595_n.png

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  3. Don says:

    I don’t disagree with your larger point, but having been on the receiving end of the process to gain security clearance it’s hard for me to take issue with Petraeus being judged for the shit-show in his private life. I certainly think results matter more than personal imbroglios, but we’ve embraced this system in the US where we judge people’s reliability to handle important government secrets based on a number of things having little to do with their professional performance. At least this case represents applying it consistently.

    When I was a contractor at a government consulting firm I was told I was essentially unclearable because I’d smoked marijuana within the 7 year reporting period and had some debts I was in litigation over. None of it a secret that someone could have blackmailed me over, but they never the less represented deal breakers. I was asked many times in interviews for the clearances of others what I knew about their marital life or whether they drank or I was aware of any problems in their lives. I saw a friend get rejected from the police reserve – a position that largely would have meant traffic work during emergencies – because his polygraph & background investigation disclosed some petty theft when he was 18, more than 20 years in his past.

    It’s a shit arrangement and I’ve long thought it means that we end up with foot soldiers in the justice system who couldn’t be more disconnected from the way real people live their lives. But we embraced it and have come to decide it’s a measure of professional as well as personal value. If the people at the top are going to continue to preside over such a way of classifying the worth of the people who work under them… well, I wish they wouldn’t. But I’m not sure I think I’m okay with applying these standards inconsistently. How do we pick a level at which we start letting things slide?

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      Yup.

      You know back in the 1980s, the Baltimore Police Department began putting people on the polygraph box if they claimed they hadn’t smoked marijuana. They assumed everyone smoked it at one point or another and they had decided that doing so shouldn’t disqualify anyone for a career in law enforcement. They kind of thought you were a little off if you hadn’t ever smoked a joint. Either that or you were lying.

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  4. RobinDC says:

    I have no doubt in my mind that people who object to your point Mr. Simon are to a one extremely lacking in the sexual market place. Jealousy no doubt fuels there every objection to the very idea of competent sluts, and their rationalizations are the nearly identical here as their rationalizations for why they never succeeded in the sexual games people play (Nice guys finish last, smart people have a harder time getting laid, blah blah blah).

    This is ad hominem and you probably won’t take this comment seriously, but the sexual hypocrisy of our society is rooted entirely in psychological feelings of inadequacy (with maybe a few truly religious nuts as well), it is subliminal and rational appeals like this one will not change minds. That is sad but true.

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    • David Simon says:

      Well, it is ad hominem. As bad as someone saying that anyone who write such an essay as I did is probably getting some on the side.

      It’s better to have ideas matter. Always.

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      • M. Christine says:

        Some people just aren’t cut out for married life. Maybe that was his problem. Have as many girlfriends as you want. It’s the wife and her feelings that make some people mad. Why not divorce and have your freedom, then you only have to worry about hurting your girlfriends.

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        • David Simon says:

          Why do I care what his marital problems were? Why do you?

          What does it have to do with the price of beans or the operation of the Central Intelligence Agency?

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          • M. Christine says:

            Boy, you sure told me off. I’m honored. Sincerely, one of your biggest fans here on the Northshore.

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            • David Simon says:

              I’m not trying to tell you off at all.

              I’m reiterating the point of the essay. I said long ago, as a reporter, that I would not again engage in the dynamic of evaluating the private lives of public personages. And if it involves consenting adults, doesn’t involve public malfeasance and isn’t an example of someone advocating for public morals and then contradicting that stance with private behavior, then I see no need to go back on that resolution. What happened to General Petraeus is relevant to himself, his family and the woman involved. It did not involve any public malfeasance. It was not hypocritical to any moral stance that the general offered.

              That’s all I’m saying. I don’t care what his problem is. It’s none of my business.

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  5. Kate says:

    Excellent post, very thought-provoking, thank you David.

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  6. DellaDash says:

    You continue to be in fine fettle on this issue, David Simon.

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  7. smintheus says:

    This might be more convincing if Petraeus were the only competent person to run the CIA, or more competent than he is; or if Petraeus did not have a long track record of manipulation, insubordination, deceit, a lack of integrity, and a habit of promoting himself by trashing others, to ornament his record of screw ups.

    The hagiography of David Petraeus, as with Churchill, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Your hagiography of John O’Neill is duly noted.

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    • David Simon says:

      Again, you are disingenuously wandering away from the real-world choice. The essay is arguing something larger than Petraeus, or John O’Neill or even Churchill. The essay is arguing the cost of making sexual mores matter in the construct of public service and whether that cost is worth it. Given that the rates of infidelity would disqualify a large plurality of married America or a majority of married America, depending on estimates, is this something that we should pursue as a society.

      You have affection for the word hagiography but you misuse it in an effort to denigrate the argument. I haven’t exalted Petraeus beyond the historical record. If he is an inferior choice for CIA director, then address that fact on the merits. If John O’Neill wasn’t the man you wanted pursuing Al Qaeda in 2000-2001, then replace him. If Churchill isn’t a great wartime leader, then elect a better one. Frankly, to read what I wrote about all three of these men is scarcely hagiography. I credited Petraeus only with having early insight into the problems of invading Iraq, and gave him no credit beyond that. I credited O’Neill with the police work he did and pretty much laid him out on his sexual misadventures. And I called Churchill, who by acclimation is regarded as a great leader, an alcoholic. I’m not exactly the best acolyte you could hope for.

      But if what you are saying is that parsing our public servants by their sexual secrets is a good way to go, then you, my brother, have entered the same realm as a J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover used sexual information to maintain his power base and to thwart others to whom he was opposed. You are effectively choosing to ignore the preponderance of sexual infidelity in American life and continue this hypocritical farce in which we appoint men and women to high position and then, rather than replace those who are ineffective on the merits of performance, we selectively use their sexual misadventures to achieve their ruin. Again, if Petraeus isn’t all that he ought to be, then deal with that. But to use sex as your political stalking horse is just a disgusting and hypocritical corruption. Hoover, troll that he was, kept hold of sexual secrets to marginalize opponents. You think it fine to expose them in order to achieve your ends.

      How about we make a cohesive case against the performance of public officials and address that, like grown-ups?

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      • smintheus says:

        Setting aside whether your own sneering response is marked by maturity, it’s full of straw men and over-generalizations. (Hoover…seriously?)

        Plainly I’m not arguing that everyone’s competence be judged by their sexual habits. On the other hand, if you can’t see why the CIA Director ought to be held to a higher standard than most, there won’t be much for us to discuss. Should also be clear that Petraeus showed terrible judgment over and over again, and that reckless indulgence with those who’d flatter his self-image doesn’t reflect well on his capacity to do that job. The fact that he intervened on behalf of a whacko to help her recover custody of a child demonstrates an almost incredible lack of discretion, if not hybris.

        I think you do make way too much of Petraeus’ supposed genius, for which I’ve never seen any evidence. You’re bemoaning his decision to resign as if it were a disaster for the nation. That needs to be argued rather than assumed. The case against Petraeus’ record, personality, and obsessive self-promotion is pretty well known, I’d have thought, so how is it completely omitted from the equation?

        The reason, I suspect, is that to admit Petraeus fell far short of his own myth would make it seem irrelevant to draw this comparison to O’Neill’s much greater competence (let’s take you at your word).

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        • David Simon says:

          I’m not sneering, but I am exhausted at the unwillingness of respondents to stay on point. But if you are getting personally offended, then we should quit this, I agree.

          When you make people vulnerable to hyperbolic levels of public scrutiny and sexual misadventure becomes a career-destroying offense, then yes, political blackmail becomes certain currency. Reread any history of the civil rights movement for that incredible moment when Hoover had his agents mail sex tapes of MLK to his home. And then MLK, who had yet to receive them and didn’t yet know that his wife was listening to the tapes, met with Hoover directly and continued to press the case for civil rights — and Hoover was incredulous that MLK could be so bland when he should be abandoning one of the greatest crusades for human rights of our time, which Hoover wanted desperately. When infidelity and private sexuality is policed with public shame and scorn, then sexual information becomes a weapon.

          What about that is a straw man or an over-generalization? Did we not just now witness an FBI agent, who on his own volition took private sexual information to Republican party operatives after FBI and Justice Department officials had concluded that Mr. Petraeus had violated no laws? Was that not a form of political leveraging entirely consistent with Hoover’s behavior? That agent should be investigated and if the accounts of his behavior are accurate, he should be fired.

          As to the unique status of the CIA director:

          Allen Dulles was CIA director for more than a decade and slept with dozens of women who were not his wife. He may have been a far greater misery on this country than Mr. Petraeus, given the performance of the CIA under his watch, but nothing in his sexual misadventures had any effect on the agency or its operation. This media dynamic, this blood sport of puritan sanctimony on the part of our press and public is a relatively recent phenomenon in American history. You say that plainly, Petraeus showed terrible judgment. Then make that case based on his public performance as CIA director and walk away from the bedroom keyhole. If he’s as vile an affront to good intelligence gathering and coherent intelligence operations as you claim, then make the case for us on that basis.

          I don’t make anything of the man’s supposed genius. I don’t even use the term. I don’t even make all that much of the man except to say that he was — and this is historically accurate — one of the few American commanders who expressed grave reservations about the Iraq intervention and argued against the manner in which we quickly conquered and then lost control of the country. He was earlier in that assessment than Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and just about anyone else in the chain of command. That is fact. That is all I credited him with. Genius? Now you are putting words in my mouth.

          If Mr. Petraeus is now a signal failure, then that is the issue. Not who he fucked. But the first you have not undertaken to prove — although there are many critics of the man who argue for his failures — and the second matter is not related to the first merely because you think it should be. If that were so, then MLK would not have been one of the greatest human rights figures of our time and Ed Murrow would not be a journalist regarded rightly as a paragon of ethical reporting and civic morality. And they are. One has nothing to do with the other. You wanna hate on Mr. Petraeus, be my guest. Do it without peering into his private life. This essay does not argue for or against Mr. Petraeus — to the extent it gave him credit for being a serious person, it did so because Roger Simon, in his flippant remarks, dismissed his entire career on the most ridiculous shard of non-evidence: a two-minute interview with a distracted candidate for office. Other than that, the article is tacit on this man’s performance.

          But if you make sexual misadventure the standard by which you get rid of people you think are bad, then that standard remains for people that the majority of Americans think are good. If sex can undo a Petraeus, then it can undo an MLK or a Murrow. And society as a whole loses. This is about process. This is not about whether or not David Petraeus deserved what he got. Or even about whether John O’Neill got what he deserved. It’s about whether we can restrict our assessments of public service to, well, public service. And grow the hell up when it comes to human sexuality and matters of sexual moralism. Why is that so hard to understand?

          Reply
          • Ross Millard says:

            The general point you are making is basically pretty solid, that citizens do not have the vote so that they can select ‘role models’ who represent perfect lifestyles as a symbolic representation of their integrity as public servants, but rather, we should support individuals who appear to have relevant experience and intelligence for the specific function of government that they inhabit, such as John O’Neill. I also have to admit though that Petraeus and Churchill do strike me as being particularly bad examples in support of that argument:

            Correct me if I’m wrong here, but much of the media coverage of Petraeus’s forced retirement from his position at the CIA glossed over some aspects of the case. It seems to me that he was not pushed out because of a fear of some sort of public scandal involving his infidelity, similar to Clinton, but rather there was some sort of reaction against the media strategy of Petraeus within parts of the Pentagon and the White House and the specific circumstances of the affair provided them with a convenient excuse to threaten him with the sack due to the ‘unprofessional’ decisions he took, i.e. accusations involving a joint e-mail account with his lover which could have been hacked (and was by the FBI) and compromised sensitive information about the CIA director which theoretically could have been used by enemy secret services or cells.

            You could argue that some individuals advising Obama were waiting for such a slip-up as Petraeus’s unilateral approach of developing close personal contacts with trusted media outlets was not entirely popular in the halls of power as seen in some of the criticism of his PR maneuvers regarding the evacuation of CIA employees from the Benghazi Embassy. This became a serious problem at one stage for Obama during that period of the election campaign when Mitt Romney appeared to be gaining ground in the poles.

            Forgive me if you think this is presumptuous, but my suspicion would be that some people in the Obama campaign were so badly scared by the threat that the Libyan crisis posed to Obama’s credibility in the TV debates that Petraeus was ear-marked for the guillotine at that point and the spurious threat of a sex-scandal was just their leverage to get rid of him, rather than something that large numbers of the American people were actually interested in. Petraeus could have continued in his job if it was simply a matter of an affair with a secretary, but he was acting in way that could be seen as reckless and doing so with a biographer who would find it difficult not to deliver a very biased account of the director’s talents and virtues, perhaps contrary to the view that some in government had developed and their understanding of confidentiality. Will that book even be published now? The sex is really a small element of the overall attempt to discredit and disassociate.

            You could even argue that the real reason for a lack of widespread respect for former President Clinton in the USA now has more to do with the impression that he was not strong enough to fight off the bizarre attack on his politics via his penis (instead of gifting Starr et al. with a nationally broadcast lie). He often seems to come across as being embarrassed by the whole episode rather than angry as the victim of a smear campaign should be – he made a complete fool of himself by his response at the time and has never been able to entirely shake that off.

            So I would say that this repeated obsession with discrediting through sex-scandal has more to do with the way that most TV stations and certain other media outlets choose to put these officials ‘on trial’ via innuendo, rather than something which a large percentage of the American public are actually particularly interested in – this sort of mass disapproval would be completely inconsistent with the rate of infidelity and divorce in the USA now. The exception to this would be the position of President where being a strong ‘family man’ still seems to be a popular preoccupation amongst a significant minority, but then part of the reason behind that is surely down to the ridiculous concentration of power in one position, as if some messianic figure-head of American aspiration is somehow going to be able to understand and master this giant corrupt mess of a democracy.

            You could argue that TV news companies and internet outlets have chosen to mimic the ratings-boosting popularity of the salacious sex-scandal pattern in fictional TV shows, like ‘The Wire’ in fact, when they are framing real-world news stories (e.g. Stringer Bell’s double betrayal of Avon Barksdale, sexual and economic). Why do dramatists often assume that political corruption at the head of an organisation is directly linked with sexual desire and what influence does that have on the way that the public frames the debate? Perhaps it comes down to the perpetual influence of Greek tragedy and Romanesque historiography.

            As to Churchill, while most of the older generations who fought under the leadership of the PM during WW2 such as my Grand-Parents were not particularly interested in picking through Winston’s war record for mistakes after having survived the horrors of that time, when modern historians look back at his decisions now it seems clear that while he was a canny warfare tactician, many of his attitudes towards the ethics of conflict and various foreign peoples were extremely controversial (even then) and in a few cases quite repugnant – he had an interesting involvement in bombing Iraqi civilians in the 1920′s for instance. There’s quite a few interesting quotes out there regarding what he thought should happen to the population of Germany – I’ve often found myself trying to argue against far-right extremists armed with stats about the decisions he took regarding towns like Dresden and struggling to defend George Orwell’s argument about the ‘lesser of two evils’. You should also recall that the electorate did get rid of Churchill via a landslide swing to the Labour party only months after the war ended (the first election since 1935), so I’m not so sure about this idea that everyone revered his decisiveness in spite of his alcoholism. It’s my belief that he had strong instincts as a military opponent and listened well to expert advise (unlike his enemies), however I think his ‘dutch-courage’ as we call it, may not have helped his rationality when planning for the end of war and its after effects. Terrible crimes continued to be committed by his ally Stalin immediately after the war and Britain was in no position to hold anyone to account because of Churchill’s ideas about violent retribution against populations which had supported fascism. It could be compared to the way that the USA has lost its credibility as a police-man in the middle-east due to its initial tactics in Iraq.

            A better example of a smeared alcoholic in British politics would be Charles Kennedy MP, former leader of the Liberal Democrats (current coalition government partners) who was forced out for often having a few too many whiskeys after work and getting caught giving an interview half-cut once, in spite of the fact he was statistically the party’s most successful leader ever, to which they owe their current position in government.

            Reply
  8. longwalkdownlyndale says:

    I heard a great point from the author and journalist Thomas Ricks on NPR, he pointed out that Eisenhower spent much of the War carrying on an affair with his red headed female chauffeur, does anyone think that it would have been smart for FDR in 1944 to say, “Well Ike, I know you are launching the largest amphibious invasion in the history of the world in less than six months, a invasion in which whether we win or lose the war will be determined in 24 hours and all, but your moral peccadilloes are just too much! So we are bringing in someone new.” Of course not, that simply crazy. But in many ways we are doing the same thing. Examples like this go back a very long way, Grant spent much of the Vicksburg campaign drinking whiskey until he fell over, people kept demanding Lincoln fire him as well, but Lincoln refused. As he put it “I can’t spare this man, he fights.”

    Reply
  9. JoeShabadoo says:

    I’m gonna have to disagree with this almost entirely. Churchill being an alcoholic yet doing a good job tells you a few things.
    1. He had an amazing staff who cleaned up his messes. He was also most likely not in the final stages of alcoholism yet when you lose your tolerance.
    2. He lived in a time when him acting like a fool wouldn’t travel around the world on youtube and twitter humiliating his country and hurting his stature.
    I also laugh at you lauding Churchill for being the most high functioning alcoholic. You obviously don’t know how common this is (with help from the wife, secretary and partners to keep things going on the bad days). You turn a very real failing into an extreme positive, like the guy is superman.

    The FBI agent you mention went around the diplomats doing a difficult job in the country to invite the Yemen security officials to the US so he could buy them hookers to get info. You act like the diplomat complaining about this was wrong when he was in fact undermining the diplomat in charge. He deserved to be sent back home.
    He then lost his job by breaking the rules and bringing one of his many girlfriends with him when he did it. Bringing flings to the fucking bureau is the reason filandering is worrisome in the first place and he did it when he wasn’t even supposed to be there in the first place.

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      You are confused. I am not laughing at Churchill’s alcoholism. I am merely noting that he was a remarkably effective wartime leader despite his personal foible. And if you think that Churchill’s staff is the reason that he thrived in his professional capacity, you’ve read nothing about the man, his performance or his extraordinary gifts. His achievements were not the result of others carrying him, but of his own greatness, independent of his willingness to go through every day half pickled. That is the remarkable thing and the analogy that matters here.

      You are also confused about Mr. O’Neill and the US Ambassador to Yemen, Ms. Bodine. Another way to view the dynamic was the State Department in its dealing with the Yemeni government had not placed any priroity on having American criminal investigators interrogate the USS Cole suspects. They considered this goal subordinate to other diplomatic priroities. Clearly, given the reality of 911 and what those suspects could have provided to American agents, an argument could be made that Mr. O’Neill understood, as Ms. Bodine did not, what was actually at stake in the continuing Cole investigation. That you have made a real world choice to sacrifice the lives of 3,000 Americans to stand on ceremony as to the ambassador’s rank and bureaucratic primacy is duly noted.

      You are further confused about the nature of Mr. O’Neill’s security breach. He brought a girlfriend not to any bureau headquarters or on any mission but to an FBI vehicle garage and repair facility to requisition a second vehicle when the first one broke down and he violated security in doing so. And as a secondary matter, he left a locked briefcase on a table in an FBI seminar on pension planning and stepped outside to take a phone call on his cell. When he returned to the seminar, the briefcase had been moved and was not located for a period of time. Mr. O’Neill reported his lapse dutifully and the briefcase was recovered and laser printed. It had not been tampered with, but merely moved by others in the meeting when the group changed locations while Mr. O’Neill was occupied on the phone.

      These are indeed security lapses and they are subject to sanction and penalty. They would not have been sufficient to end the career of a valued FBI supervisor had bureau leadership not already been incensed by Mr. O’Neill’s lifestyle in general. John O’Neill was certainly a flawed creature, as are we all, and he was not without professional failures as well. He was one-half of a notable feud with CIA counterparts that led to a lack of cooperation between the two agencies that plagued the pre- and post-911 response.

      But you have simplified and exaggerated the dynamic to such a degree that you carefully avoid the real-world choice that was involved in his departure from the FBI in the run-up to 911. Empowered by the American diplomatic and intelligence company, he is the one man who might have prevented 911. He was not empowered or supported and the result is the result. Ignore that reality if you want, but it remains the reality nonetheless.

      Reply
      • JoeShabadoo says:

        I never thought you laughed at his alcoholism. I just pointed out that you are ignorant of how common it is. It does not make him some kind of superman, it just makes him like every other alcoholic, particularly those in high positions. I also never said that Churchill didn’t do a good job, just that no alcoholic gets by for years without someone covering for him when he gets too plastered. Picking a good staff is probably the most important of being a leader and I have little doubt they had to cover for his failings at times. You talk about him like he was some kind of God, I talk about him like he was a man who did great things, but still a man.

        In your original post you talk as if he reported the briefcase out of some incredible sense of duty but from this post I can see he actually lost it for a time so was forced to report it.

        So instead of bringing her to the bureau he abused his authority to impress a fling and his own convenience? Bringing her somewhere she should not have been which triggered investigations when he was already removed from a previous post.

        I like how suddenly I made a “real world” choice to sacrifice people by saying an agent should have to follow the lead of the state department when dealing with foreign countries. The problem was the lack of information shared, but you make your judgements with hindsight and full info when neither party had them at the time. Do you think agents should be able to disregard diplomats and state department goals at a whim? When you go around and interfere with people above you you get fired and make enemies. It seems like this would be more important to his firing than his lifestyle.

        Reply
        • David Simon says:

          What is your point? The original reference to Churchill was not mine, but made by someone who quoted the man as saying with greatness comes reponsibility. That was a fine, noble quote, but I was pointing out that the man who said it was not himself without personal flaw. No one is.

          But come back to the matter at hand. If sexual misadventure is a means to disqualify people from leadership or public service, then remove Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, Edward Murrow, Clinton from the our national history. Or, perhaps, know that you are siding with British turpitude when you use the marital infidelity of a Parnell to deny Irish self-determination for another generation or two. Or that you are encouraging a dynamic of political blackmail that can keep a troll like J. Edgar Hoover in power for a lifetime, using the sexual secrets of a long series of presidents and others to thwart civil rights and political dissent. If you accept sexual morality as part of your political equation, then you open the political process up to the destructive and chaotic manipulation of sexual information. And pretty soon a Henry Hyde, who is himself hiding sexual secrets, is engineering the impeachment of a president over a sexual secret unrelated to the governance of the country.

          For purposes of this hypothetical argument, you did make a real-world choice. You sided with FBI supervisors who chose to view John O’Neill as expendable in the run-up to 911. Louis Freeh and his lieutenants certainly had arguments about Mr. O’Neill’s capacity for sexual misadventure, but his security lapses would ordinarily have been insufficient on their own to end his career, according to many I’ve talked to in the bureau at the time. And understand, his removal from Yemen wasn’t a demotion from his post, by the way; he wasn’t disciplined for his argument with the ambassador there, he merely lost the argument and he continued as the head of counterterrorism after that. No, his departure from the FBI comes down to the relatively minor security lapses alone, but coupled with the ire that his lifestyle engendered overall.

          You’ve also sided with a decision by FBI officials and the Justice Department to abandon the aggressive pursuit of a criminal investigation in favor of diplomatic priorities. Ms. Bodine, as ambassador, surely had her own arguments about what was important, but her primacy isn’t predetermined by her rank or position. The State Department isn’t by definition pre-eminent over the Justice Department; I’m sure the argument that no one is above the law has some resonance for you. Nixon made the same argument of executive primacy when he fired his attorney general for investigating Watergate. Mr. O’Neill on the ground in Yemen represented one executive department and the ambassador another. The decision to give one American interest primacy over the other is a subjective policy choice and it was made above Mr. O’Neill’s paygrade. In this case, it seems to have been a bad decision, at least for 3,000 Americans and their families.

          The point is that a lot of interests are always in play and human beings are always replete with personal flaw. Elevating the propensity for sexual misadventure above investigative competence and professional commitment has a real-world cost. You can pretend that it isn’t a factor in the case of John O’Neill by trying to misshape the facts to highlight other aspects of the dynamic and ignore the sexual element, but that isn’t the case history of what happened, sorry.

          Another commenter here made a fine analogy to World War II, saying thank god that no one fretted about Eisenhower’s ongoing sexual relationship with his driver in 1943-44, choosing to replace him in the run-up to D-Day. Were there other American generals with more sexual rectitude? Of course. But the cost to the war effort and to the momentum of the Allied invasion of removing Eisenhower to achieve that rectitude was unthinkable. The real world is the real world. Trying to argue that enforcing sexual mores among those laboring in the real world doesn’t have a corresponding cost isn’t being honest. It’s being disingenuous.

          Reply
  10. Bro'Donnell says:

    What a refreshing take on this madness. Truly appreciated!

    Reply
  11. tmay says:

    Read “Bright Shining Lie” by Neill Sheehan about Lt. Col John Paul Vann. He’s as tragic a figure of Vietnam as any, and he certainly championed the same strategy that Petraeus is renown, though decades earlier. I admired Petraeus when he first arrived in Iraq, though it became apparent that Iraq was bigger than counterinsurgency would contain. Arguably, stability only came after the majority Shiite took control of the government. A natural ally of Iran is probably not what was desired as an end result when we went into Iraq.

    Lt Col John Paul Vann might have felt as confident in Iraq and Afghanistan in the early days of our adventure, but the inertia of power deemed it more important to capture oil fields for American companies than finish the business of Afghanistan with the capture of Osama Bin Laden at Tora Bora; a missed opportunity.

    I don’t much care that Petraeus has resigned, whatever the reason, and so ends his nascent political career. He will be replaced with someone as competent and compliant to the inertia of power and that is what we expect. More of the same.

    As for John O’Niell, he had the misfortune of being more interested in capturing terrorists than capturing oil fields. He was an expert at a game that had little relevance at the time, and the inertia of power deemed him unfit for his dalliances, a nuisance just as much as Richard Clarke and many of the FBI field agents that had uncovered relevant intelligence. Tragic figures all.

    Failure to prevent 9-11 had few downsides politically; a lesson well learned it would seem, and certainly provided the impetus for an authoritarian power grab with the inception of The Department of Homeland Security and the rise of our much beloved TSA.

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      Of course. Great historical reference and an amazing book — the American intervention in Vietnam as a near-perfect single-life allegory.

      I would only caution that Vann’s departure from the military resulted from an investigation into sex with a minor. His fall from grace — at least within the context of his military rank — did not involve sex between consenting adults. But yes, the two narratives are both similar in arc. You are right.

      Reply
  12. Daniel Franco says:

    Balderdash.

    With respect to your friendship, and sympathy for your loss, I have to say you’re peddling weak tea.

    Are you so convinced that in the entire US Government there are no people who are both Capable of doing their jobs and Ethically Un-compromised? That’s a serious challenge, and I have to point out that this is 2012, not 1944 or 1962.

    Whole generations have grown up, learned from the mistakes of the past, and determined not to make them again. That is also, in your phrase, ‘reality’. To pretend that Competence allows for Hypocrisy and ‘Ends-Justify-the-Means’ thinking is just silly. We’re in the mess that we’re in because of this thinking, and continuing it will not get us out. Actually living up to our stated ideals will.

    Nothing less than that will. We’d have been done with these wars ages ago if we had done so.

    I don’t hold myself up as any paragon of virtue, but then again I don’t run for any public offices either. You are of course free to admire folks who ‘get things done’ but don’t try to sell me on the idea that their way is the only way, or even a modestly effective way in this modern era.

    In the final analysis, only Integrity is going to count. We’ve tried everything else, and everything else has led us to a world of deception, despair, and desolation. Enough of those things. It’s high time we change course and set some examples that will win hearts and minds. Dumping these ethically compromised philanderers is a very good start.

    Reply
    • Hamish says:

      Which final analysis is that, then? Judgement day?!

      Reply
    • Dan the fan says:

      Daniel, since Petraeus was appointed to head the CIA, wouldn’t you agree that is indicative that he was the person MOST capable of doing that particular job? There may be others who can do it well, but he was considered the BEST. Now, when it comes to such a sensitive job that potentially affects the lives of all Americans, would you really prefer having anyone other than the very best because they happen to be more of a moral paragon according to your particular definition, in a way that offers no advantages when it comes to the actual job they are hired to do?

      Bottom line is, as long as Petraeus did not break any laws or violate some internal CIA or government ethics code (if he did that is a different story), his ability to do his job better than anyone else is the ONLY thing that matters.

      Reply
    • rayco says:

      If only Integrity is going to count and dumping these ethically compromised philanderers is a very good start. When will US citizens begin to do that? You cannot chose the head of the CIA but you do elect congressmen etc. The people who actually govern and make laws. So why do the same folks like Newt and the hundreds of others get re-elected time and again?

      It is because it is all hubris, and no one really cares. The public interest in the sex lives of important people is a form of voyeurism.

      Reply
  13. Nechakotess says:

    From your account of John O’Neil’s talents it doesn’t sound like he was forced out because he was a “pussy hound”. Sounds like it was professional jealousies and selfishness from “superiors”. And that is what worried me. The short sightedness – and hypocrisy – of folks within important institutions that use moral rectitude for thei own personal ends.

    Reply
  14. DellaDash says:

    Upon further reading, I lifted my comment below from the previous thread:

    There are those of us who have learned what it is to face our sexual demons…the hell to pay if we keep them caged and the other hell to pay if we let them out to play. If we’ve come to terms with our own perpetual tragi-comedies, and survived how they’ve played out (hopefully in private) with spirits still somewhat intact; then I don’t see how we can not be on the same page as you, David, when it comes to public figures being exposed on the puritanical, prurient American uber-stage.

    Having waded through the commentary, I’ve concluded that Petraeus demonstrated strategic (even preemptive) acumen in resigning immediately. My sympathies to the consenting adults involved…and especially to the non-consenting wife. Beyond that, and the discussion here, I’m weary of the folly fallout…much more compelled by the O’Neill story and Churchill’s high-functioning underbelly.

    Just one hair to split – please don’t lump us all together as ‘the rest of America’ clamoring for the war in Iraq (while Patreaus forsaw futility)…it pushes all those buttons of frustrated disenfranchisement (my chads were NOT hanging when I voted in Dade County, FL 2000) and lingering helpless rage about our nation pissing up the wrong sand dune.

    Reply
  15. Axel Rauschmayer says:

    Abraham Lincoln says it best: “It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues.”

    Reply
  16. Dan the fan says:

    Thanks for your excellent and fascinating writing, David. Nice to see I am not the only person who reacted with astonishment and disgust to Petraeus having to resign over a love affair and to the resulting media feeding frenzy. Why is America so obsessed with who is fucking whom? More generally, why do we demonize behavior that falls within the spectrum of normal human behavior and that is engaged in by a large percentage of the population, including many highly productive and normally law abiding members of our society? (The “war on drugs” comes to mind.)

    Incidentally, your discussion of the Churchill’s alcoholism and how it contrasts with his professional competence brings to mind the recent movie “Flight” where a similar issue (on a less grand scale) is dramatized. I thought the movie did a good job of looking at the subject in a realistic way. With that said, alcoholism has a much higher potential to interfere with a person’s ability to do their job than marital infidelity, so this is not too relevant to the current discussion about the Petraeus “scandal”.

    Reply
  17. Sean says:

    The only relevant issue is that Petraeus conducted himself in a manner contrary to the standards required for obtaining and maintaining a security clearance. As head of the CIA he couldn’t continue to enforce such standards throughout the Agency with much in the way of credibility. He resigned, and assuming that he wasn’t a source for uncleared classified information, that should be the end of it.

    Reply
  18. Roger Brooke says:

    It never ceases to amaze me at how prudish Americans can be.
    You so easily condone violence and yet are undone by sex.

    Reply
    • derek says:

      Thinking exactly the same thing after reading the above essay, and following comments. As for Churchill, who says he was an alcoholic. Sure, he drank bucket loads, does that make him an alcoholic? Who’s to say, who *can* say without moralising? There is a growing puritanical element in the USA it seems….

      Reply
      • rayco says:

        Agree 100% the puritanical moralizing element appears to be growing in the USA. US media pushes sex because sex sells in the US.

        The general acted politically incorrect, to the view of 50% of American society (based on a CNN survey). Some of which was undoubtedly political rather then moral. Therefore the actual percentage of society claiming immorality, is a minority.

        The proponents of the ethics of “right” are very vocal while those who lean towards the ethics of “good” see the situation as a failure to deal with the world as it is. You can also frame it as the ethics of “dogma” vs. the ethics of “utilitarianism”.

        For the huff and puff of the puritanical as to benefits for society for having morally pure leaders, the proof has yet to be delivered. It is much easier to focus on the faults of men, when the goal is use morals to belittle a person to others.

        I recall years ago a well known woman once said of JFK and his indiscretions – ” I would rather a president do it to a woman then do it to the country”.

        To me you cannot wipe away the achievements of people like O’Neill and thousands of others by trying to belittle them. That speaks more to the character of the accuser then anyone else.

        Reply
  19. James says:

    David Simon is entirely right. If we are going to fling unsubstantiated opinion around, I would hazard that most men are governed far more than they would care to admit by their sex drive, and particularly so if you are in a profession like politics which requires a big ego to start with. It is also unrealistic to expect that a man like John O’Neill who achieved so much because of his buccaneering spirit and deadly charm would not also have an outsized sex drive. We need adventurers, as well as responsible committed filing clerks, to make things work. And it is quite wrong to suggest that because a man is a philanderer, that he will also betray people in his professional or public life. They are quite different things. And there is nobody with even faintest spark of life about them, who isn’t riven with contradictions. Wouldn’t it be nice if we were all grown up enough to accept that?

    Reply
  20. N says:

    You’re a talented writer but you fail to explain why people as talented as those you write about cannot exercise self restraint. It’s not that hard (no pun intended) for someone who is well adjusted and in full control. Thus, these personal failings suggest psychological fragility and future failure.

    Reply
    • Steven says:

      I disagree with you wholeheartedly. These “personal failings” as you refer to them are often derivatives of the same personality traits which make them good at what they do. The point the author is making is why do we shun the services of talented, dedicated people for the sake of exercising our collective hypocrisy? You chose to ignore the core question – would you not trade the 3000-plus souls lost on 9/11 for living with a counter-terrorism wiz and his foibles?

      Reply
    • W says:

      It doesn’t matter one lick if you think it is not that hard. You clearly aren’t qualified to be a national security maven, able to win world war II, or be president of the United States. If you were, you would have done those things. Maybe it isn’t “not that hard” for others. Maybe people with more talent and drive than you, are more prone to things that you seem to view as character flaws. The fact is, if Petraeus is the best man to be leading the CIA, I couldn’t care less if he was fucking a goat, so long as he is doing that job, and neither should you. Period.

      Reply
    • Hamish says:

      Same old tired non-sequitur that has been thoroughly debunked twice now in these two articles.

      The point is that some people care more than he did about sex outside of marriage. And some people care more about sex outside of marriage than keeping your country safe.

      Who are you to demand that he measure his restraint against your morals? Let his wife and his god judge him.

      It’s not so very difficult to ride a unicycle either. Would you put that in the job description?

      Reply
    • Ross Millard says:

      What about the idea of privacy and being given the opportunity to change? If an employer discovers that a talented alcoholic or sex-addict is behaving increasingly erratically, should the employer not attempt to retain the talent by offering help with that problem? I don’t often hear about government officials being prosecuted for leaking confidential information – perhaps an amendment to employment statutes might help prevent smear campaigns. Perhaps the population’s lack of sympathy for a sacked nymphomaniac official is down to the impression that they would themselves lose their job and/or reputation in similar circumstances and therefore why should people in power be given even more protection from social accountability/disapproval than they already are? If everyone is legally protected and knows their rights, this may defuse the ability of media campaigns to get a reaction. You could say that the origins of sex scandals in politics are derived from attempts to mock the arrogance of authority or aristocracy – people who can afford to cover up their indiscretions. If everyone has equal rights in that regard, this may resolve that resentment.

      Reply
  21. Craig Bradley says:

    This comment and the original piece should both be straight up punches to the our collective national gut. Some of the best writing I’ve recently read. I certainly agree with your overall point about the coarsening of our political world. And it applies on much more than just this sexual level.

    And while I follow your logic regarding John O’Neill, I also feel it worth pointing out that these men are aware of the world in which they live, and the eventual outcome for a serial “pussyhound” in public life is–even if this is regrettable–foregone, is it not? They must hold at least some responsibility for the choices they made and the risks they had to know those choices offered.

    Of course, even as I write this through, I see how I–in a way–prove your point. What’s the alternative for the less than perfect man with a contribution for the world? We are all flawed and we are all gifted, each in our way. And we shouldn’t throw out our babies with our bathwater.

    Reply
  22. Confianza says:

    Higher duty requires higher discipline because when you have that power, total strangers are entrusted into your care. As a general rule, people who will betray their own cannot be trusted with the care of total strangers.

    It is a puzzle still though that disgusting hound dogs who ruin the lives of the women near them can still do a good job.

    However, I don’t believe that there is any “one man” for the job. So for your example, you presume if John O’Neill hadn’t existed, things would have been worse. Just like we commenters didn’t know the man, you cannot presume to believe that historical events would have unfolded just like they did unless he were there to stop them. Your admiration of his work performance has blinded to you to the fact that none of us are that special.

    And that it why it is okay to judge those who hold the public trust (whether directly through election or indirectly through government service) because in fact, we ARE trusting them to make good decisions and do the right thing in a Pareto optimal manner. Because philanderers show such disrespect for the women in their lives, it is hard to believe they really are making the best decisions for the public.

    Much of the public may be interested in the Petraeus imbroglio due to the titillation of it. I care only, if indeed I do at all, because yes, I do expect those with higher duty to display higher discipline.

    Reply
    • Les says:

      When you invoke phrases such as “as a general rule” you’re really only attempting to shroud your opinion as if it has been proven elsewhere. What evidence is there that people who follow a “proper” lifestyle are more effective at their jobs?

      Expecting those with higher duty to display higher discipline is really only a request for the illusion of safety. The job is not to make you feel better about your worldview but to stop terrorists. The work is what matters, not placating desires for morality.

      Reply
    • Steven says:

      What makes you assume that he’s “ruining the lives of women?” Why do we tend to be so condescending as to believe that a women is not capable of making a choice in such matters, that our prowling has ensnared some hapless female. They knew what they were doing and chose to do so. And, once again, what does any of that have to do with the price of tea in China? I wasn’t as if he had not already proven himself in his chosen field. It wasn’t as if he had not already shown that he could compartmentalize when needed, and utilize his charm when appropriate.

      Reply
    • Zach says:

      > So for your example, you presume if John O’Neill hadn’t existed, things would have been worse. you cannot presume to believe that historical events would have unfolded just like they did unless he were there to stop them.<
      That's, again, not what's happening. The argument being advanced by Mr. Simon is that, at the specific time prior to Mr. O'Neil's death, his specific skill set and knowledge was extremely valuable, more valuable, in fact, than at any other point in his life. It was also at that point that our country's ridiculous obsession with sex brought him down, which, incredibly, you appear to endorse.
      Here's the issue: do you investigate the specialists in your life? Your doctors, your lawyers, the other persons who have responsibilities towards you and others?
      The argument is this: insofar as one values competence at jobs that very few people are equipped to do well, one loses interest in the private lives of those people except when their private lives intrude on their public ones.
      This was, fairly clearly, not the case in the current Petraeus case, and given the extraordinary lack of talent in American public life at the moment, eliminating General Petraeus over having slept with another woman is absurd. Making the fact that it's happened already a depressing statement about where we are as a nation.

      Reply
    • Warren says:

      Well done all of you in combating such a silly argument as “if he’ll lie to loved ones he’ll lie to the public,” or however the argument goes. The only thing I’d like to add is that he’s head of the CIA for dog’s sake! Lying is what they do. If you’ve never told a lie in your life than you are in the .00001% my friend! It would be nice to think that some day we’ll all be grown up enough to admit we’ve made mistakes and then lied to our loved ones about it from time to time . It’s part of the human condition, sadly. Many relationships have to deal with infidelity and many of them get past it for the simple reason that the love they share makes forgiveness possible. We know nothing of the Patraeus’ marriage or why he did what he did. Let them sort it out for fuck sake. It’s really none of business unless it hurt his job performance.

      Reply
  23. Obamney says:

    I find personal loyalty a trait to admire. John O’Neill was your friend and source so I don’t want to belittle that.

    Still, if all of the pieces matter, and someone demonstrates a compulsion that he is repeatedly warned about and persists with, does that not cause concern? Mr. O’Neill certainly knew that his bosses, the people who could control whether he was able to do a job, were not happy with the constant fucking around. He did it anyway. Is that not worthy of some consideration about a) the size of his ego? b) his ability to put limits on his behavior (ie self disipline) c) ability to follow orders d) respect for other people’s views and opinions?

    As usual, Mr. Simon, you make a very good argument. It feels flawed to me, though, and I’ll spend a lot of time trying to figure out exactly what is bothering me about it.

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      Are we eliminating people from leadership positions because of the size of their ego now? Damn, now Coolidge and Nixon are off the list, too.

      Actually, I really don’t want to get into analyzing the late Mr. O’Neill. He was complicated. And he left some unhappy women in his wake. And, yes, his bosses found him problematic at points. But again. he was extremely self-disciplined as an investigator and extremely committed to making proper cases against terrorists that did not fail to hold up in repeated court prosecutions. He was a pro. And he was missed.

      Also, following orders can be read as a vice or a virtue, especially in an institution such as the FBI. You will recall the post-911 story about the female supervisor in the Minnesota field office, who kept trying to go outside of channels and express her concern about the recent emigre from the Middle East who was attending flight school but told his instructors he didn’t need to learn how to land the plane. She kept trying to carry that to Washington until she was disciplined by the institution and marginalized. John made noise, some of it good and some of it, not so much. But he was about the job and everyone who worked with him knew it. And it was the job we needed.

      Reply
  24. Reg says:

    Does your opinion of Petraeus change with the knowledge that his mistress had “substantial” classified data on her computer?

    Source: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/11/14/us-usa-generals-idUSBRE8AD0GT20121114

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      As I’ve indicated at numerous other places in the comments, let’s wait on this shall we?

      If there are actual secrets on her computer then I would say that it is a relevant breach of actual security, albeit let’s acknowledge that this means those secrets traveled no further than the general’s entourage. But I was a reporter long enough to attest to the fact that all government agencies — but the Department of Defense and the intelligence community, in particular — will readily stamp classified atop virtually any document that crosses any functionary’s desk. And that document will stay classified until we are all in the grave. The categorization of secrets is so misused so as to be meaningless.

      We may find out that this lady had the names and addresses of every CIA operative in Teheran on her desktop, unencoded. Or we may find out that she has all kinds of anachronistic assessments of the Iraq campaign, now years old and no viable threat to anything. Or it may be George Patton’s dry cleaning instructions from 1944. Seriously, classified documents doesn’t mean much to me, having been a reporter. Actual secrets, yes, they would be sufficient to cause some concern.

      Reply
      • David Simon says:

        But beyond that my opinion of Petraeus isn’t the point of the essay. If he created a significant security risk through poor judgment, then there is a relevant investigation to be had, to be sure. But I just don’t care that he had sex outside of marriage and I’m amazed that so many of us do.

        Reply
        • Jordan says:

          I completely agree, Mr. Simon. The staggering amount of news reports that only describe the sexual exchanges between the parties seem barely worthy of the gossip pages.

          Reply
        • Reg says:

          I absolutely agree with your thoughts on the ridiculousness of the “affair=unfit” argument. I’m just not convinced Petraeus is the right posterboy for this argument, since we still don’t know exactly what info was on Broadwell’s computer.

          And sorry I missed the other comments about this exact question. Thank you for answering in spite of my laziness.

          Reply
    • Les says:

      Mr. Simon has addressed this before. Classified material refers to a wide variety of information, much of it trivial. An instructional guide on how to maintain basic equipment is classified material. It sounds sexy and that’s all.

      Reply
    • Scott says:

      Yes, my opinion changes of Patraeus. But only insofar as he may have mishandled classified data and, due to this alone, he may be unfit for the position. However, it does not matter to me who obtained that information – whether it be his mistress, his wife, or the mailman – only that it was mishandled.

      Would we have asked for his resignation if he had given the mailman the information? Perhaps, but he should be judged according to the statutes of his employer not by where his penis wanders.

      Reply
  25. ritu says:

    Mr. Simon, I wondered, in light of your comments regarding the in-house dysfunction of the FBI and your connection to sources there, if you had any insight or comment regarding the latest reporting regarding Mr. Humphries (Frederick W. II), his dogged pursuit of perceived wrongdoing, and his pushing it outside of the Bureau to Congressional Republicans.

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      I have very few sources remaining at the FBI at this point. It has been years. I have, since Mr. O’Neill’s death, met many who worked with him and we have shared memories and discussed his career at the bureau. But I wouldn’t suggest I have any sense of the professional climate of the FBI at this time. I haven’t done that work at all.

      Reply
  26. Les says:

    I don’t think General Petraeus is the needed expert on counterinsurgency as the tactics he used in 2007 for the surge in Iraq that focused on working with locals to create stability are not the tactics he used when he took over Afghanistan in 2009 nor what he was doing as Director in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia.

    He followed the familiar path of previous counterinsurgency ideas such as Operation Phoenix from Vietnam. What starts as a joint effort with locals devolves into hit squads where the need for investigation and confirming evidence is tossed out the window in the name of “getting things done”. General Petraeus’ move to signature strikes and kill/capture raids in Afghanistan showed that whatever ideas he had in 2007 were abandoned for the darker side of the COIN world.

    This was also expressed by the men who served as his advisers for his COIN programs. David Kilcullen went from telling the Pentagon in 2009 that drone strikes in Pakistan were doing nothing but strengthening the Taliban and anti-American sentiment to supporting signature strikes when Gen. Petraeus took over and stating that what America needed was a global Phoenix program. It’s an odd switch but again, one that has been played out before.

    Any effective counterinsurgency plan is one that will have to avoid the desire to cut corners and abandon intelligence gathering. Killing fifty civilians to get one terrorist suspect is not a course of action that will end the threat to America. If the next director of the C.I.A. abandons the plan of General Petraeus it would only be a positive change.

    Reply
  27. Jason says:

    Ahhh yes, it’s actually enjoyable to watch all these psychopaths in government throwing one another under the bus for more personal power. Yawn, wake me up whe we’re “officially” broke & can no longer police the world.

    Btw, you’re buddy O”Neill sounded like a lot of people I know who work or worked in gov’t. Fun to chase tail with, but would try and bang your girlfriend if given the opportunity. You want to see scumbags in action, go over to Old Ebbitt Grill in DC on a weeknight and watch the married Homeland Security guys try and tag anything that moves. Like I said earlier…. Psychopaths.

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      Psychopath is a big word, brother. Past sociopath on the scale of mental dysfunction. Words have actual meaning.

      And fuck you for characterizing John O’Neill as if you can understand much of the man — or much of any man — from his sex life. From the callow and empty tone of your post, I am going to indulge myself and suggest that I know you a little bit. Just as you’ve pretended to know John when you don’t at all. And I’m going to say that John O’Neill did more good in a lifetime for other people than you seem capable of even contemplating.

      That was uncalled for. And small.

      Reply
      • Jason says:

        Whooooa, settle down man. I was using the characterization based off what you wrote about to illustarate what I see w/ some people in powerful postitons of government that have the ego to think they can walk on water. I wasn’t talking a shot at O’Neill, I didn’t know the man & therefore have no reason to judge him. If he is anything like the character I think he was based on in The Wire, then I’m sure he would have been a helluva guy to suck back a few pints of Guiness w/ and listen to The Pogues.

        What I’m referring to is sickness that has overtaken Washington DC, I see it everyday. You may have read recently about the Secret Service guys down in Columbia? That sort of behavior is what I’m talking about and is very prevelant amongst gov’t elites. Obviously not all are like that, but the authoritarinism I see in some is down right scary. Seems the pressititues in the MSM casually report on it then move on to the next story.

        No disrespect to your friend, I had friends who didn’t make it out of that building as well.

        I heard a line somewhere once that went along the lines of “doesn’t every man need a code”?

        Reply
        • Total says:

          “You may have read recently about the Secret Service guys down in Columbia? That sort of behavior is what I’m talking about and is very prevelant amongst gov’t elites. Obviously not all are like that, but the authoritarinism I see in some is down right scary”

          Going to prostitutes in Colombia is authoritarian?

          Reply
          • David Simon says:

            If prostitutes around the world had to rely only on authority figures for market share, many of them would starve.

            I think it’s more honest to say they rely on men in general.

            Reply
  28. rageahol says:

    Bernard Finel has some words about Petraeus over at balloon-juice.com. I’m sympathetic to the idea of “who gives a shit about who this man sticks his penis into” except that it seems to me (given my dangerously under-informed view of the subject) like Gen. Petraeus did quite a lot to keep us in Iraq and Afghanistan for as long as we have, and played the media in order to make that happen. So, whatever you think about the man’s COIN prowess (and I can’t speak to that militarily) he has substantial culpability for putting more troops through the dual meat grinders of the last decade.

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      So what are you saying? If you dislike the individual or his role in a given policy or outcome, then we can use his personal sexual misadventures to undo him. But if you like the fellow or admire his role in a given outcome, then and only then we should reflect on the legitimacy of this media dynamic? I keep saying it, but no one seems to want to think beyond the personalities here. This isn’t an essay about David Petraeus.

      Reply
      • rageahol says:

        i’m saying that i don’t really give a rat’s ass how he went down. sex scandals are apparently the only criticism the media is willing to make of military figures. that sucks, but it’s something. al capone went to prison for tax evasion too.

        Reply
        • David Simon says:

          Well, we disagree.

          I’m worried about more than David Petraeus, if I’m even worried about him at all. Our political life is being coarsened to the point where many of the best people will look at the blood-sport that is our media culture and say, no way, it sure as hell isn’t going to be about what I can do for my country, it’s about what my country will do to me. The systemic always interests me more than the personalities. They systemic is what’s broken in America.

          Reply
          • rageahol says:

            that horse left the barn a long long time ago. i honestly don’t know what, if anything we can do about it, but carping about coarsening of the discourse seems to me like a mug’s game.

            Reply
          • rageahol says:

            it also occurs to me that this is sort of the inverse of the financial sector’s “we HAVE to give everyone obscene bonuses every year or we cant attract the best talent!” bullshit.

            Reply
          • Anna Tarkov says:

            This is actually extremely true. I have heard many people say that the reason they don’t want to enter politics or any kind of public life is the media scrutiny. I have heard people say this at a LOCAL level, to the point where people don’t even want to run for their state legislature, a county board, etc.

            The people who say this always strike me as fairly decent, upstanding citizens who would make good public servants. They just don’t want their public service to come at the cost of their names or the names of their friends, family or loved ones being dragged through the mud.

            You can say well, they should have a thicker skin. Being in politics means being in the limelight and they should just suck it up and deal with it.

            Sorry, but I would reject that characterization. Coverage of politics should be 100% about the issues, what officeholders are achieving or not achieving, what citizens want them to achieve, how public money is being spent, etc. Doesn’t that sound nice? I hope one day we will have a media that covers politics and politicians this way.

            Reply
  29. Charlie in FL says:

    I, like Warren above, only knew of John O’Neil from the Frontline episode. And, until now, never knew of Mr. O’Neill’s Baltimore connection until now. Truly a story of a competent and smart professional working under the oppression of incompetent and asinine squares who couldn’t find their ass with both hands. Which, now that I think about it, sounds like pretty much every story arc in The Wire.

    p.s. – if I remember correctly from Frontline, Sept 11, 2001 was Mr. O’Neil’s first day at his new job at the World Trade Center.

    Reply
  30. Matt says:

    Damn. Thanks for sharing that story.

    And I’m glad you’re posting here so much more. Keep it up, please.

    Reply
  31. happyguy says:

    The best thing about this whole thing is it has made me realize that Homeland is slightly more credible than I had previously considered.

    Reply
  32. Nicholas White says:

    I don’t know if you can call Churchill the greatest war leader of the 20th century. For my money, Roosevelt may not have made as many great speeches, but certainly he treated the concerns and agency of other allied peoples and nations with far more respect then the drunken imperialist did. And as much as I agree with your argument concerning John O’neill, the director of CIA must be held to a higher personal code then a great case worker. He held those below him to the same high standards he refused to maintain in his own “personal” life. Once you take on the responsibility of who lives and dies, you lose the right to have a normal, private life. If Petraeus was irresponsible enough to become involved with unstable, unreliable people, how can the President trust his judgement on the most sensitive information and issues? Your argument is that O’neill’s philandering didn’t effect his value as an agent. I cannot agree that Petraeus’ value both as leader of a covert agency was not directly effected by the irresponsibility in his private life. I know Ike carried a mistress throughout the Second World War, but again, his role and mission were both different. Higher duty, requires higher discipline.

    Reply
    • Warren says:

      I couldn’t disagree more, sir. You don’t really back up your assertion that “higher duty, requires higher discipline.” Why? Either he’s good at his job or he ain’t and should be let go or resign. But up until this “scandal,” it seems to me at least that he was thought of as being quite competen,t if not better than competent.

      You say: “He held those below him to the same high standards he refused to maintain in his own “personal” life.” But above that you argue (without really saying why) that it’s ok for O’Neill to have affairs but not Patraeus. And what are you basing that assertion on? Dod fire or have fired people beneath him for having affairs. Did he threaten to fire anyone if they did?

      And finally, I don’t really see how Ike Patraeus’ roles as leaders are so much different as to make it ok for one and not for the other.

      The only standard for people in ANY line of work is whether or not you do your job well.

      And by the way, I’m pretty sure Roosevelt had some pretty big imperialist ambitions of his own.

      Reply
      • Seamus says:

        What were Roosevelt’s imperialist ambitions? He did some fucked up things, Japanese internment is most notable, possibly not doing more to limit the holocaust is another, but what were his imperialist ambitions you speak of? Teddy was an imperialistic piece of shit, but not FDR.

        Reply
        • Warren says:

          I stand corrected, in one way, but not, in another. While FDR did very little, (by comparison at least to most U.S. Presidents) to expand American power beyond it’s borders. He did do very much to expand the overt powers of the President. Both for himself and those who followed until Congress took much of that power back from Nixon after Watergate. Google the Imperial Presidency for more.
          I have heard it argued that much of FDR’s dithering about entering the war was in order to secure some of what the Brit’s would have lost without the help of the U.S. I suspect some of that is true.

          Reply
  33. Katie says:

    Mr. Simon,

    I thought of your post this morning when listening to Morning Edition, an interview with Tom Ricks. Most of all, this quote struck me:

    “Our standards have changed, I think, in a way that’s not for the better. We are very lax about enforcing professional standards and demanding professional competence. Yet somehow, we have become very insistent about judging people’s private, consenting relations with other adults.”

    Here’s the full transcript if you’re interested.

    http://www.npr.org/2012/11/14/165093521/gen-petraeus-is-too-important-to-just-be-thrown-out

    Katie Hall

    Reply
    • Les says:

      This was brought up in the previous thread and again, it’s important to note that Tom Ricks was the leading proponent in building the mythology of General Petraeus. And as I asked in the previous thread, do you think Mr. Ricks is correct in stating that America is to blame for General Petraeus’ affair, as he said in that NPR piece?

      Reply
      • David Simon says:

        He said that? What?

        The general is responsible for his personal relationships. So are any women in his company.

        The rest of humanity is uninvolved. Or should be.

        Reply
        • Les says:

          ” It surprised me enormously about Dave Petraeus. He’s a guy who had such ambition all his life, who wanted to be a great captain of the military. It made me wonder just how much stress he’s been under. We’ve put him now through three combat tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. It made me wonder: Geez, you know, really, has this taken more out of him than we thought? It actually really bothers me. He gave so generously to the country of his time, and his family has made such sacrifices, that when it came time for us to be generous to him, we couldn’t find it to forgive him and said – we’re kind of instead dragging him through the mud nationally.”

          Is the exact text from the interview. it’s the “We’ve put him…” part that I find suspect as he’s insinuating that if not for America demanding his services he never would have had this affair.

          Reply
          • David Simon says:

            Yeah, that’s silly.

            I don’t want to castigate famous people for their sexual choices or mistakes. But no, I’m not ready to be castigated myself for their choices and mistakes. That’s nonsense.

            Reply
            • Katie says:

              I didn’t hear it that way at all, Les. I heard it as, “maybe we can understand making bad choices in the context of tremendous stress.” Not that we are to blame, but that maybe we should throw out everything he’s done because of an affair. No one deserves to be judged solely by the worst decision they ever made. I think Ricks was speaking about context, not about blame.

              Reply
          • Hamish says:

            The wording “that when it came time” is also very odd, as if presenting a sequitur.

            Reply
            • Katie says:

              I don’t think we need to parse everyone’s words so closely. Probably none of us could hold up under that kind of linguistic scrutiny, especially when speaking off the cuff.

              Reply
              • Les says:

                Again, if Tom Ricks were some casual observer of General Petraeus perhaps I would be more likely to view his statements in a different light.

                But there’s nothing off the cuff about his interview with NPR as it’s almost an exact recreation of an opinion piece he wrote for Reuters the day before. The statements about America asking so much of General Petraeus and then abandoning him is a message he wants to deliver, not musings delivered in the moment.

                Reply
  34. Kevin Stevens says:

    I’ve found it impossible to listen to the news (even NPR) for the last week due to the incessant prattling on about this story. I’m with you, I don’t give a rat’s shiny ass where Petraeus dipped his wick. But in the Honey Boo-Boo loving, scandal obsessed, audience pandering, news/entertainment complex, there’s is virtually zero chance that we won’t be hearing gushers of irrelevance for the next several weeks.

    We shouldn’t let the public off; if this drivel weren’t getting ratings, it wouldn’t be on. Not that I need to tell you anything about the problems inherent in putting intelligent programming on network TV.

    Reply
  35. On Children as judgement says:

    And while we are at It. It is documented that Churchill’s children went off the rails. Judging by children would be more important then by who you had infidelity with.

    Anyway, my point is we should judge by what they are “hired” to do.

    Reply
  36. Jeff says:

    This is the second time today that I’ve run across Mr. O’Neill’s name. Today at lunch I finished reading Laura Lippman’s “No Good Deeds” (Yes, the book was published 6 years ago, but I’m just now getting caught up), and he’s mentioned in the author’s note at the end. I was naturally curious and intended on doing a little research about him, but found my way here first and to my amazement, his name pops up here. (It should be noted that David’s name is also mentioned in the author’s note, apparently having made a remark that inspired the novel.)

    I knew nothing about any of this, and frankly, it makes me incredibly angry that this kind of crap goes on. I watched “The Wire”, I’m aware that institutions can’t really get out of their own way. However, it’s one thing to see McNulty’s efforts to do real police work in the Barksdale case thwarted by politics, red tape, and bullshit…(I think most of the viewers know that while the events of the show were fiction, obviously those stories are inspired real people and real experiences within the police department, public schools, etc), it’s something else entirely when I hear something like this – where the implications are massive.

    I don’t condone adultery…but I’m not interested in judging people either. Regardless, let the General’s wife worry about what kind of husband he is…to me, as a US citizen, his marriage pales in comparison to the experience, knowledge, and effectivness he brings to his job.

    I can’t even begin to express my anger in regards to the FBI or the Ambassador to Yemen. I mean, WTF is that?

    Reply
    • GMan says:

      Laura Lippman is married to our friend Mr. SImon. Why all those connections pop up.

      Reply
      • Jeff says:

        I know they’re married, that’s how i “discovered” Laura’s work in the first place. I just found it amazing that I finish a book that was published six years ago, a book inspired by a remark David must have made to his wife; on the same day that a post referencing Mr. O’Neill shows up on David’s website.

        Reply
  37. Warren says:

    Thanks for this David. I wasn’t aware of your personal relationship with Mr. O’neill but the Frontline episode on him made me an admirer of him, and confirmed my worst suspicions of the leadership of your FBI.(I’m from Canada.)
    I”m not the least bit an admirer of your Mr. Clinton, but that’s not at all because of his want of pussy but because I felt he was a nothing more than huge phony who cared way more about power than he did about public service, much less progressive values. But that’s an argument for another time.

    Anyway, I thought your piece yesterday was good. But this one was brilliant and moving. Thanks again. And sorry for your and your countries’ loss.

    Reply
  38. John says:

    O’Neill = Model for McNulty?

    Reply
  39. David Simon says:

    Not really, no.

    Reply
  40. John says:

    In no way was I attempting to denigrate the memory of your friend.

    His preternatural instincts and womanizing skills remind me of McNulty.

    And I’m sorry if this Wire referencing is getting tiring. But the first person I thought about while reading your description of O’Neill was McNulty: who cares what he does in private, as long as his public service is legitimate?

    Reply
  41. David Simon says:

    Took no offense. But McNulty is fictional, based on maybe two dozen different guys.

    Reply

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