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.
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.
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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.
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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.