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editorial | The Petraeus affair

FBI struck the right balance with David Petraeus investigation

What, exactly, would critics want the FBI to have done differently? The agency is coming in for a lot of second-guessing in Congress for its handling of the inquiry into the extramarital affair between former CIA director David H. Petraeus and biographer Paula Broadwell. The bizarre case, involving anonymous e-mails, catty rivalries on the Tampa social scene, and a cast of deeply immature people, has no immediate precedent. Although the facts are still coming out, it seems the Department of Justice handled the investigation about as well as it could have.

To some, the agency never should have gotten involved at all. Sex between consenting adults is legal, romantic rivalries are none of law enforcement’s business, and FBI snooping into private affairs creates an uncomfortable echo of the abuses of the J. Edgar Hoover era. The questionable role played by an FBI agent who had sent a shirtless photo to a woman involved in the case only makes the agency’s involvement more awkward. Still, when the FBI became aware of a prominent national security figure involved in secretive escapades, it had an obligation to ensure that no sensitive information was compromised.


Other critics, meanwhile, say the agency should have alerted the president much sooner. Alerted him of what, precisely? Running to the Oval Office with every uncorroborated allegation against a public figure would be a waste of the president’s time. Plus, it would effectively create an unfair presumption of guilt.

If the FBI finds evidence of a security breach, it should notify the White House immediately, to prevent any further harm. But in a case as odd as the Petraeus affair, which seemingly involved no actual crimes or harm to national security, it was appropriate to investigate fully before notifying the president.