Burn After Reading

"What have we learned here?"- Burn After Reading - Focus Features

“What have we learned?”
– Burn After Reading – Focus Features

I’ve never had a particular interest in General David Petraeus’ career, nor do I tend to get excited about the sexual peccadillos of powerful people.  I have, however, been pretty fascinated by Petraeus’ recent fall from grace for a couple of reasons.

The Honorable Thing 

The first interesting bit is the mainstream media and elite reaction.  There was (is?) a strong consensus that Patraeus did masterful work in Iraq and Afganistan, that he was a military genius and a national hero.  What would people say with his career collapsing?

On the November 11 edition of Meet the Press, Patraeus was a prominent topic of conversation.  Many of the guests commented on it, here are a selection of quotes, emphasis added:

MR. WOODWARD:  And he did the honorable thing.  He– he had to resign given this.  I– I don’t think there was any question.

SEN. COBURN:  Well, I think leadership matters and setting an example.  And I don’t think he had any choice given the sensitive nature of everything that he does that he could have any questions about his character and his integrity.  And so I think he did the honorable thing.

MR. STEVE SCHMIDT (Former Senior Adviser, John McCain 2008 Presidential Campaign):  Well, General Petraeus has spent much of the last decade abroad.  He has served this country very well.  He did the honorable thing.  We have this tendency in Washington to want to tear people down when they have made a mistake, when they have fallen, but he’s a legitimate American hero, and I think he has got great contributions to make in the future

Maybe it’s me, but there appears to be a common theme.  Michael Hastings, one of the few reporters critical of General Petraeus before his fall, appeared on Piers Morgan on Nov 12 to discuss the disgraced general ( his end zone dance piece at Buzzfeed can he read here ) .  Also on the program to defend Patraeus was retired General Mark Kimmet, who mostly had the script down:

MORGAN: Paula Broadwell calling David Petraeus a role model. How things have changed. Joining me now is General Mark Kimmitt who has known General Petraeus for 25 years, also Michael Hastings, Buzzfeed reporter and writing for “Rolling Stone.” He says America should have never trusted Petraeus in the first place. And Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona, a former Defense Intelligence officer who also served with the CIA. Welcome to you all.

General Kimmitt, let me start with you. You’ve known General Petraeus for 25 years. Do you recognize the man that you’ve been reading about for the last 24 hours?

GEN. GEORGE KIMMITT, FMR. DIRECTOR, PLANS & STRATEGIES, CENTRAL COMMAND: Well, in many ways, I do, because with this one exception of this incident that he had with Paula Broadwell, I think the fact that this was a guy that stood up when the facts became known, did the honorable thing and resigned. That’s the David Petraeus that I know.

That “when the facts became known” clause is hilarious in that it clearly reminds us of the sequence of events.  For it was only after his affair with Paula Broadwell, his hagiographer, was exposed that he decided to do the “honorable thing” and resign.  At no other time while he was CIA director and carrying on an extra marital affair did his honorable nature compel him to resign.  But then maybe the affair really wasn’t his fault at all.

Patreus’ old friend Brigadier General James Shelton gave an interview with MailOnline:

In an exclusive interview with MailOnline, Brig Gen Shelton blamed biographer Paula Broadwell for the affair as Petraeus was the ‘innocent one when it came to relationships’.

He also claimed that she is a ‘savvy woman’ who knows a lot more about matters of the heart than Petraeus, who has spent the bulk of his life in the military and has been married for 37 years.

So the scenario we are given is Petraeus as the blameless ingenue, completely taken in by the wiles of this worldly woman.  It’s a good thing that the insurgents and various militants in Iraq and Afghanistan never knew that their opposition was led by such a starry eyed, easily manipulated man.

Whatever else may be there, do you see the honor in any of this?  Maybe we lack the finely calibrated moral sense of the elite.  That discernment that can detect the subtlest hint of honor in the extramarital affair of a canonized fellow elite, like the subtle vanilla notes in a Chardonnay.  Though maybe it is they who are lacking, they have a sense that is underdeveloped….a sense of shame perhaps?

Burn After Reading

The second aspect of this I find interesting relates to how the affair was exposed.  It apparently began with an FBI investigation that was initiated by a Florida woman named Jill Kelley who received anonymous Emails she found threatening.  The threatening Emails were coming from Paula Broadwell and in the course of their investigation, the FBI uncovered Emails between Broadwell and Petraeus that revealed their affair.  Apparently Broadwell had thought Kelley to be a competitor for Patraeus’ affections.

The FBI also uncovered Emails between Kelley and Gen. John Allen, who succeeded Petraeus as top allied commander in Afghanistan and is nominated to become NATO’s top military commander, that may have been ‘inappropriate’.  This sparked an investigation into Allen by the Pentagon’s inspector general.

So who is Kelley?  From a NY Times piece:

American officials familiar with the social dynamics at the upper echelons of the Central Command described Ms. Kelley as wealthy socialite who knew “almost every” high-ranking officer serving in Tampa. Her ties were close enough that Mr. Petraeus and General Allen both intervened last September in a messy custody dispute on behalf of Ms. Kelley’s twin sister, Natalie Khawam.

So, yes, apparently when you are a socialite you can initiate an FBI investigation that digs into tens of thousands of Emails when you get an Email you don’t care for, and you can get top generals to intervene is custody disputes.

But why would Patreus and Broadwell exchange deeply compromising information over an insecure medium like Email?  According to Patraeus’ Wikipedia Page they had a clever scheme:

According to an Associated Press report, rather than transmit emails to each other’s inbox, which would have left a more obvious email trail, Petraeus and Broadwell left messages in a draft folder and the draft messages were then read by the other person when they logged into the same account.

Not exactly masterful cloak and dagger work for the director of the CIA.  More facts will certainly emerge, but what’s been seen so far is petty, low rent, and ridiculous.  No one comes off looking too good.

It all makes me think of the Coen Brothers movie Burn After Reading.  It’s a farce that takes place in Washington DC.  John Malkovich plays a low level, alcoholic, rage filled CIA analyst who is pushed out of his job.  His wife is having an affair with a moron horndog who works for the US Marshals service played by George Clooney.  In retirement, Malkovich is writing his memoirs, which end up falling into the hands of two gym employees who, thinking it is highly classified intelligence, try to sell it back to Malkovich.  Once of the gym employees, played by Frances McDormand, wants money for several cosmetic surgeries, and is also having an affair with Clooney.

Meanwhile, the CIA has been keeping tabs on Malkovich, though they have no idea what to make of anything that’s been happening.  Malkovich’s former boss reports what’s been going on to his superior (played by the great JK Simmons), “They all seem to be sleeping with each other” is one of the few concrete details he can report, “Report back to me…uh…I dunno, when it makes sense.” is the guidance Simmons leaves his underling with.  By the end a couple people are dead, and still no one has a clue what’s going on, though McDormand’s character does manage to get the funding for the plastic surgeries from the CIA.

Contrast that with something like the Bourne series, or 24, or almost any entertainment featuring government agents.  They are almost always organizationally adept, strategically brilliant, and technologically savvy, near to the point of omniscience.  Though of course, if the hero is fighting the government like in the Borne series, the abilities of the agents always somehow fall short of actually apprehending or killing the hero.  Now think about the Petraeus affair…do you think Burn After Reading maybe hits closer to the mark?

What have we learned?

So let’s ask ourselves what Simmons’ character asks at the end of Burn After Reading: “What have we learned?”  Well, to maintain skepticism of those canonized by media and elite consensus to be sure.  And the higher the pedestal, the more skepticism is warranted.  Remember when John McCain was the most honest and most awesome war hero ever?  Paul Ryan is still a super smart, highly principled policy wonk.

What else?  Somewhat disorienting, and more than a little frightening: those in power, sometimes those in a position of great power, often don’t provide evidence of being any more brilliant than the rest of us, and regularly give evidence that they are hopelessly less so.  Maybe what separates us from those who make the important decisions that affect us is not so much talent and ability, but a surplus of ambition and ruthlessness.  Think about it…but probably not for too long.

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