The Mysterious Tango Between a News Spinner and Those He Spins

They must think we’re all gullible, or at least just a bit lazy. Take the recent spin from the Petraeus camp delivered by Ret. Col. Steve Boylan, a friend and former spokesman who appeared Monday on NBC’s Today Show and ABC’s Good Morning America to share personal information Petraeus told him in extended conversations over the weekend, most notably that the affair with Paula Broadwell began two months after he became CIA director in (around November 2011) and ended four months ago (July 2012.)

Twelve hours later Boylan was on CNN telling Anderson Cooper the same talking points. No one challenged Boylan or even asked if the general would be willing to testify about the timeline under oath.

When did they go “All In?” The wrong answer could lead to a court-martial.

For all the embarrassing details that have surfaced so far, earlier reports at least marked his appointment as CIA chief as the end of his extramarital affair, showing somewhat a more sober frame of mind. So why would he send Steve Boylan out with a story to specifically refute that point?

I suspect it’s all about Article 134 which covers the crime of committing adultery under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice (UCMJ)  The penalty? Court martial, dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of pension, even confinement.

At the risk of sounding preachy, the latest 4-star scandals should serve as a warning to journalists who have covered military and national security beats, along with their editors, anchors and producers. (George Stephanopoulos did ask if the affair began in while working on the book in Afghanistan; Boylan denied it.)

Petraeus seems to have been controlling his press image for decades as telegraphed years ago in his Princeton dissertation unearthed by journalist Michael Hastings.

“Perception” is key, Petraeus wrote in 1987.  “What policymakers believe to have taken place in any particular case is what matters — more than what actually occurred.”

Hastings is best known for his bold reporting that ended the career of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the predecessor of General Petraeus. He has written best-selling books and now digs into “The Sins of General Petraeus,” for BuzzFeed.com.

Hastings calls Petraeus “world class bullish** artist,” and details many of the ways he sees Petraeus has manipulated the media. As the scandal unfolds, a pattern does emerge.

We Now Know Petraeus Kept his Friends Close and his Biographers Closer

Before Paula Broadwell, biographer Linda Robinson wrote a glowing biography of General Petraeus and widely publicized it. He then hired her to work for him at U.S. Central Command.

Before Paula Broadwell, Petraeus spent time charming his first female biographer, Linda Robinson a highly regarded former national security and military reporter with U.S. News & World Report. Just as he broke the ice with Paula Broadwell, the general got to know Robinson on runs in Afghanistan and in 125-degree heat. Both journalists were ultimately welcomed in to his inner circle,  deemed fit for duty to tell his personal story.

In 2008, Linda Robinson wrote her take on David Petraeus and his war record: Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq. After the book came out he rewarded her with a post alongside him at U.S. Central Command.

There is no suggestion that Linda Robinson and David Petraeus had an affair;  the similarities between her and Broadwell raise more questions about the development of a media cult around him.

Linda Robinson, 58, is currently an adjunct senior fellow on foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and is a Nieman fellow at Harvard University. She has also been a senior editor at the respected Foreign Affairs magazine and her work has appeared in the New York Times, theWashington Post and a string of policy journals. She has helped spread the gospel of General Petraeus.

In a series of interviews she also heaped praise on the man himself, including one in 2008 with NPR in which she expressed her affection for him, not dissimilar to the words of his second biographer, Paula Broadwell.

So, we now ask: through what prisms have we been viewing the general?  Has he mastered relationships with selected reporters to portray him as a man of military brilliance, honor and integrity.

“How did Petraeus get away with all this for so long?” Michael Hastings asks.

“His first affair – and one that matters so much more than the fact that he was sleeping with a female or two – was with the media.”

Hastings Calls Out A Shocking Media Conflict of Interest

The media, either for access or straight up cash (laundered through an organization Petraeus started called Center For A New American Security or CNAS), gave favorable reports or used quotes from unnamed sources which painted favorable pictures for one such strategy or another.

(CNAS) put the journalists who were covering those same plans and policies on its payroll. For instance, New York Times Pentagon correspondent Thom Shanker took money and a position from CNAS and still covered the Pentagon; Robert Kaplan, David Cloud from The Los Angeles Times, and others produced a small library’s worth of hagiographies while sharing office space at CNAS with retired generals whom they’d regularly quote in their stories.

Since the Petraeus/Broadwell affair scandal broke, all gloves are off; new investigations are underway into a possible abuse of power by Petraeus, unchecked until now –taking a girlfriend on a private military jet for his round-the-world “goodbye tour,” reportedly traveling with rock-star-worthy entourages that includes a CIA assistant assigned to provide fresh water and pineapple on his morning runs? It’s a tough balancing act, but it’s now the time for beat reporters to dig deeper, take off the kid gloves that have protected their access at the expense of what the rest of us need to know.

Not All Military Sex Scandals Are Explained by Testosterone Shifts.

While pop journalist Gail Sheehy is off exploring military mid-life crises and other more sympathetic explanations for Petreaus’ career-ending affair , a military judge in Ft. Bragg, N.C. is currently deciding whether or not to bring trial Brig.Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair wh is charged with multiple counts of adultery and other UCMJ violations, some involving egregious sexual misconduct.  Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair served five combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan where his last assignment was deputy commander in charge of logistics and support for the 82nd Airborne Division before being abruptly relieved of duty in May. The criminal probe involves four female military subordinates and one civilian.  If the case goes to trial, Sinclair could face life in prison.

It is difficult to separate the predators from those who have made a more human mistake.  Abuse of power can easily wipe away a lifetime of sacrifice and service.

Can Petraeus, a Retired General, Be Punished Under UCMJ?

When Petraeus became head of the CIA, he officially retired from the military with a monthly pension awarded four-star generals: $12,475. Given his relatively young retirement age of 60, a cut in that pension could add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. You see, military retirees are subject to the UCMJ. There is the legal possibility that he could be reactivated and charged under the UCMJ

A legal precedent might be the 1998 case of retired Maj. Gen. David Hale who was the first retired army general to be court-martialed, charged with 17 counts of lying, conduct unbecoming an officer, making false statements and conducting adulterous relationships with the wives of several subordinate officers.

Hale, then 53, was a West Point graduate with sterling combat record that included a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and the Soldier’s Medal for Heroism. He was awarded a Silver Star for an act of courage during the war in Vietnam after he picked up a live enemy grenade and flung it from a foxhole during a firefight.

When Hale took the witness stand in his own defense, he choked up as he described how he “sank into a moral abyss as his marriage of 29 years fell apart in 1996 and 1997.”  During that time, he said, he turned to the wives of his subordinate officers for comfort – eventually having improper sexual relations with at least three of them. (There was also an adulterous affair with a civilian.)

At first, he was allowed to retire in the middle of the army’s criminal investigation which centered on the allegations that, as commanding NATO general in Southern Europe based in Izmir, Turkey, Hale coerced a woman into a sexual relationship by threatening to undermine the career of her husband, a lieutenant colonel on his staff.  When first charged with sexual misconduct, Hale sued the woman, Donnamaria Carpino, for defamation of character and accused her of stalking.  The details were damning as were reports that  Carpino’s husband was flown from Turkey to Landstuhl, Germany on the general’s personal aircraft for an involuntary mental health evaluation.

Army prosecutor Maj. Michael Mulligan called the highly decorated Hale “a moral coward” and asked that he be sentenced to an unspecified prison term, have his pension cut permanently, that he be fined an amount equal to the cost of the Department of Defense investigation into his philandering – over $125,000,

In the end, Hale negotiated a plea agreement and was given an official reprimand, fined $10,000 and had his $6,312-a-month pension docked by $1,000 a month for a year. (A short while after the court-martial, Hale married the wife of a major who worked for him in Turkey.)

Will Petraeus Be Punished by the Military?

Probably not, unless there’s new evidence of compromising national security, which the FBI has said it did not find.

Courts martial for adultery are very rare among of high-ranking officers.

  • In 1999 (two-star)  Maj. Gen. John Maher, vice director of operation for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was demoted to colonel and fined a month’s pay, $8,632, for engaging in improper sexual relationships with the wives of two officers under his command over a seven-year period. The demotion equalled a loss of $975,000 in retirement benefits.
  • That same year, a two-star admiral in charge of the Navy’s air forces in the Mediterranean. Rear Adm. Paul (Scott) Semko, was formally relieved of his duties after an investigation found that he an adulterous affair with a civilian and then lied about it to investigators. He  received a punitive letter of reprimand for ”conduct unbecoming an officer.”
  • In 1998, the Navy  declined to court-martial  Rear Adm. John Scudi who had steered $150,000 in government contracts to a civilian woman with whom he had an adulterous affair. Instead, he was demoted to the rank of captain, losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential retirement benefits.
  • In 1995 Rear Adm. Ralph Tindal was found guilty in a noncriminal Navy inquiry of being involved in year-long affair with an enlisted aide  and received the same punishment as Adm. Scudi.

Will Broadwell Be Punished?

Well, she’s had her security clearance revoked as a member of the Army Reserve — her bio says she was recalled three times to active duty since the Sept. 11 attacks to work on counterterrorism issues and intended to return to active duty or get into the policy world. Theoretically Broadwell could be recalled to active duty along with Petraeus and charged with Article 134. If so, it is likely she will be portrayed not as ambitious, in love or as one who morally stumbled in the distant and dizzying foreign outposts of war, but as someone who is “nutty,” “self-promoting” and “obsessed” with a man who could not disentangle himself.

After reporting Gen. Sinclair to his military boss, the female captain at the heart of the case had her security clearance  suspended, was relieved of her duties and referred for a mental health assessment.  In the evidentiary hearing, she was portrayed by his defense lawyers as “crazy,” “volatile” and “back-stabbing” after she testified she he forced her to have oral sex and threatened to kill her when she tried to end the relationship. I suspect Paula Broadwell will continue to be punished in the media, said to be crazy, vengeful, a cross between the obsessed Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction” and ruthless Rielle Hunter. Then again, she is ripe for a second biography,  (“All For Nothin’?”)  to set the record straight, or at least to tell her side.

The more painful truth lies with the military women who are punished for adultery even when the violation of UCMJ Article 134 is not consensual, but involves a superior officer’s coercion, blackmail or death threats as has been alleged the of Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair now awaiting a decision whether or not he will face a court-martial at Fort Bragg.

Which brings us back to Ret. Col. Steve Boylan and the selective details he shared from morning ’til night regarding the timeline of the Petraeus/Broadwell affair.  If their dirty laundry is aired under oath, forced by a military hearing, there’s a lot more at stake than a the loss of a star, a cut in a retirement pension.

The CIA is now investigating Daniel Petraeus in many areas, including abuse of office perks (i.e. using government planes and vehicles for private use.) Throughout history, financial wrongdoing trumps moral stumblings in determining a return from such a public fall from grace.  Leon Panetta gets it. Just this week he ordered William Ward, a former four-star general who led U.S. Africa Command, to repay $82,000 for extravagant and unauthorized trips he took with his wife.

Of course. there’s the rest of Pandora’s box that Paula Broadwell opened with her single spiteful e-mail that’s now ensnared Gen. John Allen and his “special friend,” Jill Kelley. The so-called Tampa socialite actually convinced both high-ranking generals to officially intervene in her twin sister’s custody battle and invoked some sort of diplomatic protection on a 911 call about the media on her lawn.

How Far Will the Collateral Damage Reach?

It will get messier. More careers will be destroyed. Spouses and children will get hurt. There will be a flurry of house cleaning and ethics reviews.  But in the end, regardless of the tragic and personal consequences, we might all feel better that some sunshine has been brought to the reporting of those who have been running a war we can’t win and that  no one wants.

Shelley Ross is the author of “Fall From Grace: the History of Sex, Scandal and Corruption in American Politics 1702 to the Present.”  While at ABC News, she produced a series of Pentagon exposes with Sam Donaldson which resulted in the resignation of the Secretary of the Navy in the wake of the “Tailhook” scandal,  a change in the rape reporting policy of the Navy, a creation of an anti-hazing policy in the Marine Corps and the closure of the Bermuda Naval Air Station. 
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