Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

5 things we've learned from Petraeus scandal

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
November 15, 2012 -- Updated 0058 GMT (0858 HKT)
The scandal involving General David Petraeus is an occasion to examine the way Washington and the media work, says Frida Ghitis.
The scandal involving General David Petraeus is an occasion to examine the way Washington and the media work, says Frida Ghitis.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frida Ghitis: Petraeus scandal is far from clear, but we've learned some things anyway
  • She says libido and arrogance continue to make accomplished men do stupid things
  • She says anything you write in an e-mail is not really private; the FBI can look if it so chooses
  • Ghitis: Americans torn about what's public, private; prefer a sex scandal to real issues

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter: @FridaGColumns

(CNN) -- The increasingly convoluted scandal that led to the resignation of CIA Director David Petraeus has become an endless source of speculation, drama and surprising turns of events. There is much we don't know, but a few important facts have emerged with sharp clarity.

It's not too early to learn the first few lessons from this continuing saga, which promises to deliver many more for weeks, probably months. Here is some of what we have learned -- and relearned -- so far:

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

1. Powerful men, no matter how brilliant and accomplished, can suffer from a form of temporary insanity caused by the interaction of arrogance and libido.

Sadly, this is a lesson we see repeated time and time again, across national borders, destroying promising careers and even changing the course of history. Nothing, it seems, not even the highest IQs, the most exclusive security clearances, or the tangible risk of losing it all for the sake of a tryst will stop certain men from pursuing an illicit relationship. Yes, powerful women do it too, but the cases are rare.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



On the other hand, the parade of men who have destroyed or very nearly killed their careers and their personal lives is endless.

News: The Petraeus scandal -- what we know so far

Gen. Petraeus, the most celebrated military officer of his generation, is the most recent addition to the list. We still don't know what's behind tens of thousands of pages of e-mails Gen. John Allen allegedly exchanged with a woman involved in the Petraeus scandal, and there's the curious case of the FBI agent who reportedly sent shirtless pictures of himself to that same woman. We can't say yet which of these characters will join the melancholy list that includes John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Tiger Woods, Mark Sanford, Anthony Weiner, and on and on and on, each with an accompanying cast of heartbroken relatives.

(And, by the way, when a powerful man pays a high price for his indiscretions, prepare to see efforts to blame it all on the woman. It's not surprising that the Petraeus case has included countless references to the clothing choices of the general's girlfriend, as if form-fitting outfits made it all seem logical and understandable.)

2. Anything you write in an e-mail can be used against you.

Nothing is private, especially not when it goes through Google (Gmail's) hands. If America's top spy, the head of the CIA, can get caught writing secret love letters to his girlfriend on Gmail, nobody's e-mails are safe. Petraeus and his clandestine girlfriend, Paula Broadwell, took some troubles to keep their illicit correspondence safe. They reportedly relied on a trick used by some al Qaeda operatives. They left messages to each other in the drafts folder of an account, the password to which they both knew, thinking they would remain for their eyes only. But it didn't work.

When the FBI came calling, Google opened up its shockingly large files, as it does with shocking regularity. Google knows everything about you, and it frequently shares with those who ask. Google's own reports say it passed information to authorities in response to 93 percent of government requests in the second half of 2011. Nothing in Google's hands is guaranteed to remain private.

3. The FBI can investigate practically anyone in the U.S., even the director of Central Intelligence.

That's a stunning notion to contemplate, and it says both good and bad things about America. First the good: No one is above reproach, not even a man whose power is vast and often elaborately concealed. In fact, if you ask the world's great conspiracy theorists, they will tell you the CIA can do anything, anywhere, at any time. But its boss got found out by his own country's law enforcement gumshoes. That's amazing.

Is Petraeus scandal about natl. security?
Gen. Allen caught in Petraeus probe
Why some powerful men cheat
Feinstein intends to talk to Petraeus

Score a point for the rule of law in America, but subtract one for privacy and another for the randomness of FBI work. It seems rather strange that the FBI decided to pursue a case of harassing e-mails. I was once personally told by an FBI agent, in no uncertain terms, that the FBI had no time to spend on threats sent over the Internet, even if the messages included a threat to kill.

News: Is Petraeus pillow talk a security threat?

4. Americans are deeply torn about the question of private morality and the public sphere.

There is a nagging sense that the Petraeus case may have cost the United States the service of an uncommonly talented man for no good reason. We don't know all there is to know, and there is a possibility that this is a matter of compromised national security, in which case the invasion of privacy, the destruction of personal lives, and the painful intrusion into the deepest emotional recesses of several families' worlds, could ultimately prove justified.

Until more is known, the rest of the world is shaking its head at what could be another baffling case of American puritanism.

Zakaria: Why Petraeus will be missed

Americans, meanwhile, are already trying to work out whether it makes sense to even consider the sexual lives of public officials. There is the none-of-our-business crowd, which I believe is gaining strength, pitted against those who would like to keep aiming for strict ideals of morality, on the argument that personal dishonesty reflects a moral failing that will ultimately takes a toll on the work of a public servant; that if a man will lie to his wife, he will lie to his country. This is a questionable proposition.

In this case, with Petraeus having achieved such a high level of recognition for his public service, many people seem to almost hope that a genuine national security angle will be found, because it's too difficult to justify the sacrifice of a talented official, or perhaps more than one, over foolish peccadillos.

5. A salacious sex scandal will push everything off the top of the rundown or the front page, especially when the most immediate next challenge is the "fiscal cliff," a dry and arcane topic that will cause most people to change the channel or turn the page.

That's one reason we know this strange and twisting case, already involving such a complicated and unlikely cast of characters, will continue to garner enormous attention for a long, long time.

The least we can hope is to learn some useful lessons.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT