It Started with a Whisper: The General Petraeus Scandal

November 15, 2012

General Petraeus with Paula Broadwell
General David Petraeus shakes hands with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. (ISAF via Reuters)

It’s hard to believe that President Obama’s re-election last week—and the looming fiscal cliff of next month—have been eclipsed by news of the CIA director’s affair with his biographer. People in Washington have affairs all the time, so what’s the big deal with Gen. David Petraeus’ relationship with journalist Paula Broadwell?

Some people may be focused on the immorality of betraying someone you’ve been married to for 38 years, while others may be enjoying the spectacle of seeing a powerful Washington insider humiliated. But aside from the affair, another big story concerns what national security secrets the director of the CIA told his girlfriend. Worse, how did that girlfriend illegally manage to remove documents from secure government buildings as she’s admitted to the FBI? The President, Congress, and a lot of the American people must be wondering about Petraeus’ judgment and how he could get himself into such a position.

People also want to know if there were any kind of “pillow talk” between Petraeus and Broadwell. Broadwell is a journalist with security clearance, so it’s likely she would be interested in inside information that Petraeus might provide.

And what was Broadwell’s real motivation for having the affair? Petraeus himself might be wondering if Broadwell were more interested in him or the information he could provide. Jill Kelley, the woman in Tampa that Broadwell threatened, was also a friend to Petraeus. Broadwell’s threats may have been motivated by jealousy over their relationship, or maybe the fact that Kelley was an insider who also may have had access to classified information.

At this point, the media’s focus on the Petraeus affair has moved from cheating on your wife to telling your girlfriend national security secrets. But even as the scandal seems to widen everyday, we haven’t yet heard a clarifying statement from Petraeus or Broadwell.

“I found out that everybody talks, everybody talks, everybody talks” goes the Neon Trees’ song that’s a hit right now. When Broadwell finally does talk, she has at least three things to explain: her affair with the director of the CIA, how she happened to take those documents, and what she’s planning to do with any secrets she collected during the affair.

Robert Smither

By Robert Smither

Smither is dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and a professor of psychology who specializes in leadership, organizational politics, and the psychology of political sex scandals. He is the author of ten books on topics including psychology, politics, and finance, and runs a blog, NewPsychoPolitics, which examines the psychology of politicians, and particularly the psychology of politicians who get involved in sex scandals.

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