March 3, 2015; USA Today


Something is really wrong with the plea agreement that the Justice Department reached with former CIA director and general David Petraeus. Justice determined after a long investigation that Petraeus leaked confidential information to his biographer and mistress, Paula Broadwell—not just a little tidbit here or there, but “a massive amount of sensitive data,” according to USA Today writers Kevin Johnson and Tom Vanden Brook. In addition, Petraeus lied to FBI agents and “fretted” about Broadwell’s handling of her meetings with the FBI. 

Included in Petraeus’s disclosures to Broadwell were the identities of covert officers, the kind of information that got Scooter Libby a 30-month sentence for having revealed the identity of covert agent Valerie Plame. In the deal with Justice, Petraeus is let off with two years of probation and a fine of $40,000. 

Petraeus’s longtime supporter, Senator John McCain, issued a statement applauding the plea agreement. “He has apologized and expressed deep regret for this situation, and I believe it is time to consider this matter closed,” McCain said. “At a time of grave security challenges around the world, I hope that Gen. Petraeus will continue to provide his outstanding service and leadership to our nation, as he has throughout his distinguished career.”

That doesn’t quite cut it for some people. The nonprofit Government Accountability Project issued a brief statement lambasting the inequitable treatment of Petraeus, who leaked information purely for his own benefit to his paramour, versus whistleblowers who have disclosed information in the public interest and have been rewarded not with probation, but with serious judicial actions brought by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act. 

In the GAP press release in regard to the plea deal, GAP’s National Security and Human Rights Director, Jesselyn Radack, said:

“The government has used the Espionage Act to overzealously prosecute GAP’s whistleblower clients and threaten them with decades in prison. Petraeus’ cushy plea deal makes crystal clear that the government has more than enough tools to punish leaks without resorting to the heavy-handed Espionage Act.

“The Justice Department reserves the Espionage Act for whistleblowers like GAP clients Edward Snowden, Thomas Drake and John Kiriakou, who reveal information in the public interest, while well-connected, politically powerful leakers like Petraeus, whose leaks are of no benefit to the public, are given a slap on the wrist, or a promotion and a book deal.” 

In fact, that seems to be the case, as Politico ran an article suggesting that this plea deal with no prison time sets the stage for Petraeus’s “comeback” to public service. This is the same guy who, while passing “black books” containing confidential information to his girlfriend, declared that Edward Snowden, who with neither money or a girlfriend as motive disclosed information in the public interest about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, had committed treason. As Petraeus was bringing his black books home to an unsecured civilian location for Broadwell to peruse, former CIA officer John C. Kiriakou was serving two years of a thirty-month prison sentence for having disclosed information about the Bush administration’s practice of waterboarding, for which he was prosecuted by the Obama administration. Officials like Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) who wanted to throw the Espionage Act book at Snowden and even at Julian Assange, the latter not even an American citizen, were quick out of the box to call for immunity for Petraeus.

Perhaps Petraeus hadn’t intended to violate the law. Perhaps it was just in the heat of passion that he threw his better judgment out the window and “screwed up royally,” as he wrote to a friend (though his subsequent lying to the FBI and coaching of Broadwell sounds more conspiratorial than simply mindless, sex-addled behavior). Perhaps…but it doesn’t work. People who are legitimate whistleblowers find themselves skewered by the Obama administration while Petraeus, handing over secret data to his mistress, gets off the hook. The inequity in this plea deal is all too obvious.—Rick Cohen