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Is there a big story beyond Petraeus’ peccadilloes?

Shakespeare famously said in Hamlet: “Frailty thy name is woman!” I can’t figure out why he considered the male of the species to be different and mentally stronger.

General Petraeus (60), who not long ago achieved glory in the dangerous fields of Afghanistan, and was even considered President material, has like many before him, proved the Bard wrong again. Falling to the charms of his biographer Paula Broadwell (40), a mother of two and a former Harvard Graduate and a Reserve Major in the US Army, the four-star General has stirred the hornet’s nest.

The intriguing question: Was he merely harmlessly indiscreet, or did he cause a breach of security in the CIA that he headed after returning from Afghanistan? A full-fledged FBI investigation is on, and not hobbled by politics it could come out with more damaging revelations about the whole US defence establishment. It could also embarrass President Obama, who is desperately trying to settle down to his hard fought trophy of a second term at the White House.

Already a second woman - Jill Kelley (37) of Florida - is being mentioned as an associate of Petraeus. We don’t know how many more names will tumble from the General’s cupboard. If they do come, we are in for more surprises. In the process we may get a closer insight into the murky world that Washington DC is. That would provoke many in Delhi to ask the question rather mischievously: Will our own national capital stand a scrutiny of the kind FBI is undertaking thousands of miles away from our shores?

General David Petraeus. Reuters

As of now I have no reason to believe it will not!

Basically the revelations were generated by a war between two women fighting for the exclusive attention of a fabled soldier. Kelley was a liaison official to the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), and perhaps got to know Petraeus in Tampa (Florida), where the latter was once posted to head the US Central Command. Earlier this year she went to the FBI once she started receiving abusive and threatening mails from Broadwell, in which the latter asked her to “back off “ and “stay away from my guy.”

Why she preferred the FBI to the local police is anybody’s guess. It was possibly because inter-state jurisdiction was involved, where events in both Florida and North Carolina (home of Broadwell) had to be investigated. It is learnt that the General’s efforts to promote peace between the two women were in vain. Since Broadwell’s threats to Kelley were through e-mails, the FBI had to necessarily analyze the online traffic. This is how they stumbled on the communication between the General and Broadwell in particular. Thereafter a larger picture emerged, much to the FBI’s discomfiture.

The initial impression was that this was merely a case of a General going astray. Subsequent developments do give rise to the feeling that there is a lot more to the episode. The recent FBI searches at Broadwell’s home and the taking charge of a large number of messages and documents point to something more sinister than a mere a liaison between Petraeus and Broadwell. Kelley may have been just a bystander, and had received some attention from the General in the past.

The whole episode has attracted worldwide attention, because after leaving the Army, General Petraeus was heading the CIA (a Senate ratified Presidential appointment) and was reporting to the Director National Intelligence, a position created after 9/11 in order to create a super authority who will coordinate intelligence collection and analysis among a host of intelligence agencies in the US. Several contentious issues have emerged out of this interesting development, some of them are germane even to us in India, where there is a raging debate about the role of the CBI and the need to give it total autonomy.

Eyebrows have been raised over the fact that a cyber crime, as this instance appeared to be - at least on the face of it- does not normally attract the FBI’s attention, and still the Bureau chose to take it up. The one principal criticism is that although the FBI had started its investigation nearly six months ago, it had not taken the intelligence committees in the House of Representatives and in the Senate into confidence until a few days ago. An impression has therefore been created that the FBI was actually waiting for the Presidential poll to be over.

If this were true, the FBI has opened itself to the charge that it is vulnerable to political influence. Some Democrats are peeved about the secrecy that has shrouded the FBI operations. An interesting fact is that Bob Mueller, the current FBI Director, finished his ten-year term last year, and the White House, instead of appointing a successor, has chosen to ask him to continue for another two years, until September 2013. Muller has however a great reputation for integrity, and there is no reason to dispute it at this juncture. Still some tongues are likely to wag.

It is still not clear whether Petraeus’s misdemeanor has resulted in any breach of security at Langley, the CIA headquarters. If there is no suspicion of that kind, is all the furore about the General’s conduct justified? If he has been guilty only of adultery, should he have had to go? One perceives traces of hypocrisy here, going by the fact that marriage as an institution has suffered some reverses in the recent past, resulting in a large number of divorces.

Intelligence agencies the world over have suffered similar embarrassments a number of times in their history. What then is the right balance between providing for human peccadilloes such as the one daunting General Petraeus, and the need not to compromise with threats to national security? At least in one instance, about two decades ago in one of our southern cities, our own RAW opted for a low profile removal from service of one of its operatives who had been compromised at home, instead of prosecuting him in a Court of law. There are several interesting prospects ahead as the Petraeus’s investigation proceeds further.

The author is a former CBI Director.