The Real Petraeus Scandal: His CIA Killing Machine
November 17, 2012
“I hear that Petraeus likes it,” a source told me. “I hear he likes to be in the room when it happens.”
He wasn’t talking about sex. He was talking to me a good six months before the revelation of the affair between General David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell, and so he wasn’t commenting on Petraeus’s bedroom enthusiasms. He was talking, instead, about killing. He was talking about drones. He was relaying a rumor, which is why I never used his comment in the story that I was writing about “The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama.” I repeat it here to provide context for the ongoing discussion of what was at stake not just in the fall of David Petraeus but also in his rise — for the ongoing journalistic enterprise of finding “the real scandal” underneath the scandal of one 60 year-old man’s affair with a younger woman.
A kind of consensus has emerged in the last few days among purveyors of sophisticated analysis charged with writing about David Petraeus. The sex scandal is not the real scandal. The real scandal is either the combination of prurience and priggishness that drives men of competence and talent out of positions of public responsibility because of their private behavior, or the fact that “private behavior” barely exists anymore, given the ease with which the FBI sought and received access to the personal email correspondence of Broadwell and Petraeus.
I agree that these “real scandals” are scandals indeed, and cause for ongoing concern about the health of the republic. But they are not the real scandal. In yesterday’s iteration of his ongoing online conversation with Gail Collins, David Brooks said that Petraeus “didn’t do anything that the legendary C.I.A. director Allen Dulles didn’t do dozens of times over. Dulles had an affair with a member of the royal family of a foreign government, for crying out loud.”
This is an inapt comparison. For while Petraeus might have done what Dulles did, in committing a sexual indiscretion, Dulles didn’t have the capacity to do what Petraeus did. He didn’t have the capacity to transform the CIA into a paramilitary organization distinctive for its lethality and lack of accountability — the killing machine that spearheads the Lethal Presidency. He didn’t have the capacity to order, and then preside over, the executions of hundreds of people.
Petraeus did, until the revelations of his affair. After President Obama — and perhaps White House counterterrorism advisor William Brennan and Special Ops panjandrum William McRaven — Petraeus was the primary driver of a policy that has established killing as the option of first resort in the war against Al-Qaeda and its proxies. He did not institute the data-driven “signature strikes” that have become the CIA’s specialty, but he clashed with the State Department over them, and he was relentless in his efforts to make sure that the inherently expansive Lethal Presidency kept expanding. The revelation that President Obama managed a “kill list” from the Oval Office rightly drew a great deal of attention; but just as remarkable were the killings in which the President had no direct hand. It has been estimated that the White House has ordered about a third of the targeted killings that have taken place under the Obama Administration; the rest have come at the behest of JSOC and the CIA. The President was consulted about the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, and ordered it to be carried out on September 30, 2011; apparently he was not consulted about the drone strike that two weeks later killed al-Awlaki’s son Abdulrahman, a 16-year-old American citizen never associated with terrorism.
From the beginning, the architects of the Lethal Presidency have justified their ownership of the power of life and death by promising that they will use the power reluctantly, wisely, dispassionately, with precision and restraint. Indeed, they have claimed nearly superhuman powers of discrimination to counterbalance the power they have come to possess, to the extent that nothing could be more threatening to their power than the entrance of unruly human passions. Americans ambivalent about the prerogatives of the Lethal Presidency might experience a moment of unwelcome clarity if they found out that the President was killing people out of political expediency; they should feel no less uncomfortable now that they’ve found out that David Petraeus was killing people while also trying to extend his sexual potency.
In truth, we upped the moral ante on the executive branch when we gave it the power to kill people unilaterally and in secret. The media’s deification of General David Petraeus turned out to be wishful thinking, a collective psychological projection necessary to allow him to keep killing without answering questions. He couldn’t be human, because we gave him inhuman powers. Now he turns out to be very human indeed; now he turns out, in more ways than one, to have “liked it.” It is not a titillating revelation but rather a horrifying one, for to understand how deeply David Petraeus was embedded with the Lethal Presidency we need only look at the scorecard:
To the best of our knowledge, the United States has carried out no drone strikes since his fall.