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Petraeus/Broadwell: It's the technology, stupid

Writer-director-producer David Simon (creator of "The Wire," "Generation Kill," "Treme") has a piece at Salon headlined: "Media's sex obsession is dangerous, destructive," in which he eviscerates Roger Simon (no relation) for his Politico column, "Gen. David Petraeus is dumb, she's dumber." And The Week offers a round-up of trashy "journalistic" misbehavior, " The David Petraeus affair: Why the media's coverage is sexist." I don't know. "Sexist" seems like an understatement. Puerile, snotty, crass, raunchy, snide, scary, onanistic, stupid, instructive, pointless -- it's all those things, too. At the very least.

While some have focused on their own lurid speculation about covert sexcapades (some punning off the unfortunate title of Paula Broadwell's "semi-authorized biography" of her mentor/lover, All In*), R. Simon said Petraeus "never should have resigned as director of the Central Intelligence Agency because he was involved in a sex scandal," but because "If he were any more dimwitted, you would have had to water him." As you can probably tell from the tone of that remark, he doesn't take the "scandal" itself very seriously: "No, not because he committed adultery. Adultery is commonplace in our society. It may someday be mandatory."

D. Simon says the media's fixation on the sex lives of the rich and famous is ruinous, to journalism and to society as a whole:

David Petraeus has had sex outside his marriage, as have many men and many women. Human sexuality and compulsion are not in any way related to intelligence. It's not that the dumb or powerful are more prone to fucking around, or that the intelligent and powerless do it to any greater degree. It's that men in general are hopelessly and permanently prone to contemplate sex and furtive romance and, sometimes, to act on it. The reasons they do so are crude, ordinary and inevitable. Women are also hopelessly and permanently prone to contemplate furtive romance and sex -- and yes, I changed the order, I know -- and the reasons they do so are only marginally less crude, ordinary and inevitable.

I think Simon and Simon are both right in some respects, and both wrong in others. They seem to agree that the real story here, if there is one (besides that the head of the CIA has resigned for misconduct), is not about sex. Yes, they were inexcusably "dumb" (as in foolish, reckless, irresponsible) to write explicit messages to each other in electronic form. And, yes, that poor judgment (as your vice principal used to say) has consequences. I don't care if somebody has an affair -- every marriage has its own dynamics and it's none of my business -- but why would you go online and document it? You couldn't just save it for in-person encounters?

If Petraeus gave Broadwell access to classified information she wasn't cleared to see, it doesn't matter what their relationship was: It's not kosher. Same as if he had told his wife. Or his barber. Or an al-Qaeda operative. Or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. All of those are equally bad, and it's conceivable that the repercussions could have been the same -- somewhere between nothing and catastrophe. At first, the FBI (OK, that's a whole other dimension) said there was no indication that Petraeus had shared state secrets, but now there are reports that Broadwell's computer(s) contained some.

The way I look at it, there are only two other important aspects to this whole affair, and they both have to do with the (mis-)use of commonplace technology:

1) Petraeus and Broadwell used the Drafts folder of a joint Gmail account to exchange sexually explicit messages. They were aware enough to want to hide what they were doing by not actually sending e-mails that could be traced, but apparently naïve enough not to realize that this trick is known to terrorists and teenagers the world over. And, well, one of the parties involved is the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, which means he has great responsibilities to the government and the public. As somebody entrusted with the nation's most closely guarded secrets, the risks and consequences of illicit activity on his part are multiplied exponentially. I'd be curious to know if his professional position and reputation made them feel less vulnerable -- or more vulnerable. Or were they in some particularly dangerous form of denial?

2) Broadwell harassed another woman (whom she is said to have jealously imagined was a sexual threat and rival) and used an e-mail account she shared with her husband to threaten her to stay away from Petraeus, around the same time that Broadwell and Petreaus were breaking up their relationship.

David Simon sees the story as a commonplace tale of adultery among the (relatively) rich and famous, and excoriates the hypocrisy of the press coverage:

I'm neither an admirer nor detractor of Gen. Petraeus. But I am most definitely a detractor of what journalism has become in this country, of what passes for the qualitative analysis of our society and its problems. And I've paid enough attention to the human condition to no longer take seriously the notion that anyone who lets penis or vagina rub against the wrong person, who is indiscreet in doing so, and who then tells the truth about it when confronted by an FBI agent is unfit for either citizenship or public service. I certainly know enough about the human condition to know that all kinds of people -- smart and dumb, powerful and powerless -- are capable of finding themselves in such a circumstance and shaking their heads at just how far they strayed, at just how indiscreet they were in their very ordinary, human hunger, and how they have hurt those closest to them. Sex, done right, is some powerful shit. And when Americans begin to accept the human condition for what it is rather than an opportunity to jeer at the other fellow for getting caught, then we will be, if nothing else, a little bit more grown up....

We've caught some of the smartest and most committed public men and women with their pants at their ankles. Time and again, we've had our fun. We've roundly mocked them for the very weaknesses that are so utterly our own.

I don't disagree, but I also don't think it can be made that simple. These aren't movie actors. They're two consenting adults with high security clearances and military intelligence experience who tried to hide their illicit behavior, but used fairly easily traceable electronic means to do it. That, to me, is just weird. How people use technology, in life and in movies, as extensions and expressions of themselves is something that fascinates me. We spend more time interacting with luminous rectangles than just about anything else, and I hate it when I see movies, or read news stories, that fail to appreciate how the commonplace technology we're all familiar with is actually used by human beings.

Unless you are reading this in a printout (from a computer), you are probably reading it on a glowing screen of some sort. As they used to say down on Avenue Q, "The Internet is for Porn" -- not just for the communication of information and ideas, but for sexuality, and the correspondence between Petraeus and Broadwell was described as "sexually explicit." What beggars belief is not that two people who knew better had an affair (even though Patreus was subject to the Personal Responsibility Program for officials with "pre-nuclear delegation" responsibilities), it's that they used the Internet to conduct (and thus record) it.

D. Simon writes, "It would be one thing if this were a scandal that could have compromised the CIA or American intelligence, if this were some honey trap set by foreign entities." But that's just the thing: It could very well have been. (It might still turn out that security was compromised.) The point is, they didn't have control over, and couldn't have foreseen, the possible consequences. Nobody's accusing anyone of treason or espionage, but who's to say it couldn't have been "some honey trap set by foreign entities" -- or an attempted blackmail scheme or something else out of a spy movie? Maybe one or both of them knew they weren't risking intelligence secrets, but they obviously knew they were taking risks, engaging in behavior they feared could be exposed and that they tried to keep secret. That seems to me more germane, and more egregious, than the adultery itself. It wasn't about "misplacing [a] penis," in D. Simon phrase; it was about taking risks that jeopardized their reputations, and thus the public trust.

That's not OK. Petraeus knew that, and knew he had to resign. It wasn't for his professional behavior, but it was for his unprofessional behavior. That doesn't necessarily make him an evil man, or a moron, or a laughingstock, or a retroactive failure in his military career (he retired from the Army in 2011).

Pehaps, as Andrew Leonard writes, also in Salon:

... there's another, more important lesson to be gleaned from this tale of a biographer run amok. Broadwell's debacle confirms something that some privacy experts have been warning about for years: Government surveillance of ordinary citizens is now cheaper and easier than ever before. Without needing to go before a judge, the government can gather vast amounts of information about us with minimal expenditure of manpower. We used to be able to count on a certain amount of privacy protection simply because invading our privacy was hard work. That is no longer the case. Our always-on, Internet-connected, cellphone-enabled lives are an open door to Big Brother. Just ask Paula Broadwell.

On CBS's "Face the Nation," old Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan said, "This feels a little 'Homeland,' almost. And I just have to ask why do we have to lose him [Petraeus] over this? That actually makes no sense." I wish someone had asked her what she meant by the "Homeland" comparison. (Jon Stewart insisted it was more like "Melrose Place.") The first season of "Homeland" was about a mentally ill CIA agent (Claire Danes) who becomes romantically obsessed with a POW hero (Damian Lewis) whom she also suspects is a sleeper terrorist. So, in Noonan's formulation, which one is who? Is Broadwell the crazy woman or the terrorist? Is Petraeus the CIA agent or the former POW? Or does it even matter? Everything on our screens is either fiction or reality TV, which is mostly fictional.

_ _ _ _ _

* I feel strongly that the target of a joke, and the approach it takes to that target, determines whether it's funny, which is why I always want to know why somebody laughs. Two people can find something "funny" for entirely different reasons. There was a crude mock-up of Broadwell's biography cover which you would most likely have never seen ("All Up In My Snatch" -- and I don't know if it was created before or after the scandal broke) had an editor not used a faked cover he found on the Internet without noticing it had been altered. Story here. Undoubtedly, there are twerps who think the cover itself is actually funny (instead of just vulgar and obvious). What I find mildly amusing is that such a patently offensive thing got past the "gatekeepers" and made it onto the air. The joke, if there is one, is on the TV station, not Broadwell or Petraeus.

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