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Petraeus Caught in Obama's War on Leaks

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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With the news that U.S. prosecutors and FBI officers are seeking to charge former CIA Director David Petraeus with felony violations for mishandling classified information, it’s a good moment to reflect on the lengths to which the Obama administration has gone to protect state secrets.

While Barack Obama campaigned in 2008 to bring more transparency to government, his administration has been a fierce defender of official secrecy. In 2012, his Justice Department secretly seized the phone records of Associated Press reporters for disclosing details of an al-Qaeda terrorist plot originating in Yemen. More U.S. officials have been charged with leaking secret information under Obama’s presidency than any other modern president. Obama’s Justice Department has also invoked the state secrets privilege in a string of civil lawsuits brought on behalf of detainees who have been sent to third-world jails.

And now some department lawyers are looking to charge Petraeus for leaking secrets to Paula Broadwell, his biographer and onetime mistress. The classified documents were reportedly found on Broadwell’s personal computer at her home.

It’s possible the FBI has dug up more serious criminal activity than this. But that seems doubtful. As Josh Rogin and I reported last month, Petraeus has retained his security clearance and even has served as an unofficial adviser to the White House on Iraq and Syria while the FBI’s investigation remained open. If Petraeus was such a risk to disclose state secrets, then why is he allowed to retain access to them while the FBI conducts a probe that has lasted now for more than two years?

What’s more, Broadwell herself was writing a second book on Petraeus. When Broadwell -- a graduate of West Point -- was writing her first biography of him, she was given access to top secret information covering the period in which Petraeus commanded allied forces in Afghanistan. This arrangement is common in Washington for established authors. Sources for Bob Woodward, whose books often disclose classified information that is provided to him through semi-official leaks, are not investigated for betraying state secrets.

As Representative Jason Chaffetz, the new Republican chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, told me on Saturday, the charges against Petraeus “better be pretty spectacular, given the years they put into investigating it.” Chaffetz added that they should either charge Petraeus at this point or let him get on with his life.

There is another component of this story as well. Senior officials such as Petraeus, who serve at the highest levels of the national security state, are almost never punished as harshly as low- and midlevel analysts who are charged with leaking. When former CIA director John Deutch was found to have classified documents on his unsecure home computer, he was stripped of his security clearance and charged with a misdemeanor. President Bill Clinton pardoned him. Sandy Berger, who was Clinton’s national security adviser, absconded with sensitive documents relating to al-Qaeda from the National Archives. In 2005, he was fined $10,000 and stripped of his security clearance for three years.

The fate for lower-level leakers is rarely so kind. Consider Thomas Drake, the NSA official accused of passing details of a wasteful data-monitoring program to the Baltimore Sun. In 2013, Drake was working at an Apple Store, even though the felony charges against him were dropped in 2011.

Admittedly, Petraeus played a supporting role in the administration crackdown. As CIA director, he praised the sentencing of former CIA agent John Kiriakou, who in 2012 pleaded guilty to revealing the identity of a CIA officer to a New York Times reporter. Kiriakou -- who confirmed to ABC News in 2012 that the CIA was waterboarding detainees in its secret prisons -- is now serving a 30-month term in federal prison.

Nonetheless, another lower-level leaker caught in the crackdown has some sympathy for the former general. Lawrence Franklin, a Farsi-speaking Iran analyst at the Pentagon, pleaded guilty in 2006 to taking classified documents to his home and trying to convey some classified information to two lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. While the Justice Department eventually dropped its prosecution of the Aipac employees, Franklin spent 10 months under house arrest and was never allowed to work in his chosen field again. Franklin’s professional life was ruined, even though he agreed at first to cooperate with the FBI in its investigation of the lobbyists. Franklin has since worked jobs at McDonald's, a race track and a parking garage.

“Unless the FBI has proof that General Petraeus willfully endangered American military personnel, the president should personally and immediately quash this investigation,” Franklin told me today. “Otherwise, to continue such a trivial pursuit of minor infractions will only succeed in destroying the ability of the general to contribute to America's national security in the future.” Franklin added: “I feel this in spades for him. Because of my own infractions I was unable to help our country for these past 10 years.”

Which brings us to the irony of Obama’s efforts to protect our government’s secrets. Despite his Justice Department’s unprecedented campaign against leakers and investigations into journalists themselves, more secrets have been disclosed during the Obama presidency than any other. None of these measures stopped NSA contractor Edward Snowden from stealing classified files and leaking them. Nor did they prevent Chelsea Manning from handing over diplomatic and military archives of the war on terror to WikiLeaks.

And while some of these leaks were not in the public interest, many were. Because of them, Americans know in more detail about the extraordinary powers the federal government was assuming after the Sept. 11 attacks, the quiet deals cut with Middle Eastern dictators to win their cooperation in the war against al-Qaeda, and the full breadth of the $80 billion annual budget for the U.S. intelligence community.

It’s something for Attorney General Eric Holder to consider as he decides whether to charge David Petraeus with a felony crime for sharing classified documents with his biographer.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net