Of all the story lines to emerge from l’affaire Petraeus, surely the following three are widest of the mark:
First, the idea that the director of the Central Intelligence Agency is a victim of America’s puritanical mores.
Second, the idea that, whatever the legal fine points, an FBI investigation involving a mistress accessing an email of a CIA director does not become a de facto investigation of the director.
Third, the idea that a CIA director can have a private email account, wholly personal and separate from his job.
All extramarital affairs are human tragedies. That would be true even if this one involved a factory worker and secretary cheating, not two high-profile, high-achieving West Point graduates. The difference is that the pain and injustice are even more monstrous for the innocent spouses and children here, because their private humiliation is playing out across our front pages and television screens.
At its core, however, the scandal that felled David Petraeus has public dimensions only tangentially connected with sex. An affair that was truly private might be buried quickly and quietly. Now that the affair has been broadcast to the world—beginning with Mr. Petraeus’s own resignation statement—honor itself requires honest answers to awkward questions that affect the public trust.
These questions start with the basic: When did this affair begin? Initial reports suggested that it started in Afghanistan, where biographer Paula Broadwell spent much time with the general. Now his friends are telling reporters that the affair began after he joined the CIA in September 2011.
Let us hope this is true. We must hope so, first, because if his affair occurred while he was still in the Army, it is a crime under the uniform code of military justice. We must hope so, too, because if the affair started before he took over the CIA, the truthfulness of his statements to investigators during the run-up to his Senate confirmation might be called into question.
Ask former Clinton cabinet member Henry Cisneros or Bush Homeland Security pick Bernard Kerik about the consequences of making false statements during confirmation checks. They can be grave. At the public level, the more candid the general is about his affair, the more credible he will be when he speaks about Benghazi.
The same goes for the email. On the face of it, that a man in his position would send as much “private” email as has been reported seems extraordinary, given that every foreign intelligence service on the planet would love to know those emails’ contents. In addition, Ms. Broadwell apparently had classified documents on her computer.
The FBI says it is satisfied that these documents didn’t come from Mr. Petraeus. But they did come from someone—and it would be good to know who. We ought to know more about how exposed that information is, especially if it was traveling the world through Gmail. Quite apart from questions of sexual intimacy, we ought to know, too, whether the privileged access that Mr. Petraeus gave his biographer allowed her to get (or encouraged those around him to give her) information she ought not to have had.
Above all, Mr. Petraeus’s affair raises questions about what the general was telling Congress and the public about the mess in Benghazi that saw four Americans killed. We know Mr. Petraeus can be direct when he wishes. We saw that with the unequivocal CIA statement denying that anyone in the agency ordered anyone not to come to the aid of those under attack in Benghazi.
Less clear, alas, is the CIA involvement in the spin put out by the White House: that the attack on the consulate was the work of an out-of-control mob enraged by a video blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad. News reports in the aftermath of the attack suggest that Mr. Petraeus backed the White House line when he briefed Congress.
Finally, there is Americas “unrealistic” attitude toward sex. David Gergen complained about this view on “Face the Nation” on Sunday: “I think we have to be understanding that as the saying goes the best of men are still men—men at their best.”
Depends on what you mean by being “realistic” about sex and human nature. Citizens who accept positions in government that give them access to sensitive information—myself included, when I went to work for the White House in 2005—are asked highly intrusive questions about marriage and adultery. The questions involve less moral judgment than a practical recognition that sexual intimacy is more than a physical act; it leads to emotional entanglements that can take even the most judicious of us to reckless and irresponsible places.
All of which relates to the question of the week: Given what we know now about the consulate attack in Benghazi, we need to find out whether Mr. Petraeus’s personal troubles influenced what he said to Congress. In short, America still needs to know what Mr. Petraeus’s unvarnished view of Libya was, and is.
*Text by “The Wall Street Journal” (Editorial); November 12, 2012