Pondering Petraeus

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David Guttenfelder / AP

General David Petraeus, center, tours the U.S.-run Parwan detention facility near Bagram, north of Kabul, on Sept. 27, 2010

We spent the weekend sifting through the shards of what had been the stellar career of the nation’s most prominent and respected post-9/11 general because of an extramarital affair.

“He is a guy,” Senator Saxby Chambliss told ABC’s This Week on Sunday, “who has probably contributed more to the safety of the United States of America over the last decade than any single individual.”

As head of U.S. Central Command in 2010, Petraeus told CNN that he focused “enormous effort … to minimize collateral damage, and that does indeed characterize our campaigns.” Amid vile humor, congressional harrumphing and stricken Army colleagues over the weekend, it’s important to acknowledge that Petraeus’ military career and tenure as head of the CIA are only collateral damage. His family was the prime target of his transgression.

Petraeus generated respect in the Army ranks throughout his 37-year career, although it was always leavened with professional jealousy. He was one of the smartest officers in the U.S. military, and he knew it. But his deft political touches protected him, and after he led the successful surge of U.S. troops in Iraq in 2007, he became largely untouchable.

His armor vaporized on Nov. 9 when Petraeus (West Point ’74) announced that he was stepping down as director of the CIA because of his relationship with his biographer, Paula Broadwell (West Point ’95).

Both military and intelligence officials have said that Petraeus seemed smitten by Broadwell and gave her unprecedented access to him and his work for All In: The Education of General David Petraeus, her adulatory account of his life and times, which was published in January.

It appears that e-mail squabbling between Broadwell and Jill Kelley, the State Department liaison to the military’s Joint Special Operations Command, triggered the CIA director’s downfall. Kelley went to the FBI after she got what she deemed a threatening e-mail from Broadwell, the Associated Press reported.

Early fears of purloined CIA e-mails turned out to be wrong. The CIA chief was apparently brought down by a pair of women vying for his attention.

Current and former Army officers were gobsmacked by the news. Some didn’t believe his staff could have been ignorant of his liaisons with Broadwell. Others expressed surprise that he elected to leave the CIA — at the urging of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper — instead of sticking around.

But Senator Tom Coburn concurred with that decision. “I don’t think he had any choice given the sensitive nature of everything that he does,” he told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday.

Petraeus and his wife of 38 years, Holly, have dropped out of sight, as has Broadwell. Lawmakers have been debating whether Petraeus will have to appear before congressional committees investigating the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

The CIA was partly responsible for the consulate’s security, and Petraeus recently traveled there to check out his agency’s role. It seems that Petraeus won’t testify at the initial congressional inquiry into the matter, which is slated for Thursday, but lawmakers suggested he could be called to testify at later hearings.