Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

5 things we've learned from Petraeus scandal

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
updated 7:58 PM EST, Wed November 14, 2012
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
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT