Sex Scandals: National Security Threats or a Box of Hamsters?

Sex scandals between political figures and their subordinates are par for the course in Washington, D.C.

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In this June 29, 2010 file photo, Gen. David Petraeus testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. Petraeus, the retired four-star general who led the U.S. military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, resigned Friday, Nov. 9, 2012 as director of the CIA after admitting he had an extramarital affair.
In this June 29, 2010 file photo, Gen. David Petraeus testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. Petraeus, the retired four-star general who led the U.S. military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, resigned Friday, Nov. 9, 2012 as director of the CIA after admitting he had an extramarital affair.

Daniel Gallington is the senior policy and program adviser at the George C. Marshall Institute in Arlington, VA. He served in senior national security policy positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Department of Justice, and as general counsel for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

One thing we can bet our 16 trillion dollar debt on is that "the Petraeus affair" won't be the last media driven sex circus involving a high-profile politico. Let's see, just a few of them: Sen. John Edwards (love child and sex-tape), Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (the domestic "Sperminator"), and perhaps the most notorious of all cheater guys ("I did not have sexual relations with that woman"), President Bill Clinton.

So, (1) should this kind of behavior ever [really] surprise us, and (2) should it be disqualifying for high government office—so-called "positions of public trust"? After all, these folks have (or have had) national security responsibilities; and this behavior can attract the attention of foreign intelligence services.

[Take the U.S. News Poll: Is David Petraeus's Affair Really a Scandal?]

To begin with, there are some important "collateral questions"—most have to do with lying about it, and to whom the lies are made. Here, a typical situation is that lies are told or made in connection with background investigations and the granting of security clearances or accesses.  This is probably the most frequent kind of case involving high-profile adulterers.

One remedy is to confront the "applicant" and get to the truth, then evaluate whether the clearance or access should be given. Another is to deny the clearance or access, which in most cases means the applicant is disqualified from the position of trust in the first place. In these situations, the fact that the applicant lied about the behavior is the operative fact, perhaps even more than the behavior itself—this because it's a proven indicator of character and reliability.

For those philanderers in elected offices, the situation is quite different, and many times the "solution" can only be a political one.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Example: Is it possible, as a result of this anomaly, that a congressman or senator—who might not be able to get a certain clearance or access if they were an applicant at an intelligence agency—could be appointed (and confirmed) to be the Secretary of State or Defense, with all the clearances and accesses necessary to do that job? The answer is—unfortunately—yes.

So, should such kinds of behavior ever really surprise us? The behavior itself, probably not: "Covert sex" between political power figures and their subordinates or quasi-subordinates is an organizational fact of life that many have had to deal with in the government workplace. And, Washington, D.C. is the capital of "sneaking around", if there ever was one.

However, the most perplexing part of this question remains: How in the world could someone believe—rationally—that this activity would remain "secret" or that people [let alone the media!] would not talk about it when they learned of it? Gossip is a very powerful force in most government offices and activities —and while the participants in an office affair are generally oblivious to it, most everyone else knows "who's doing whom". And if it's "the boss", the gossip and speculation is rampant.

[See a photos of the characters in the Petraeus CIA scandal.]

In fact, this may be the most "dangerous part" of the behavior and also addresses the second question, i.e., should the behavior be disqualifying? This because the behavior demonstrates a detachment from reality that could adversely affect other matters of judgment and decision-making. How? At the core of the behavior is a serious "delusion of grandeur" inconsistent with what we should expect from our highest level "public servants".

As the betrayed spouse in these cases must always say: "What were you thinking?" Exactly, and we are all entitled to the same reaction.

Why? Implicit in this fantasy is the idea that they are so important, so omnipotent as to be immune from the consequences of their behavior. This was certainly the core assumption of Bill Clinton and John Edwards—as neither had any compunction about continuing to lie, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Bottom line:  What kind of distorted ego is required for someone to behave this way? And, is it consistent with the kind of leadership we expect? Clearly not.

[See photos of Gen. David Petraeus, Behind The Scenes.]

What's the "answer" to this recurring "character problem"? Here is a list of things that could be done:

  • Appoint more women to senior government national security positions
  • Require more explicit representations (on affairs and adultery) as a condition of (and a continuing qualification) to serve in "super sensitive" jobs
  • Limitations, supervision, and oversight of the accesses of researchers and biographers
  • Required certifications for evaluations and promotion recommendations—to the effect that there has been no "inappropriate relationship" (to be defined specifically) between the parties
  • Expansion of polygraph requirements and coverage for more kinds of clearances and accesses
  • Any or all of these measures can be taken "by direction of the president"; this because the access to—and the protection of—"national security information" is uniquely a function of the executive branch of government.

    [See a collection of political cartoons on the David Petraeus Scandal.]

    Would these steps eliminate situations where a person of high government rank or position has an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate [or quasi-subordinate]—even when the relationship might not be exploitive, or even when "beneficial" to both parties? No, but it would serve to periodically remind most of those who serve us at high levels that they will get sanctioned (in some way) if they involve themselves in such clandestine relationships, whether they choose to lie about them or not.  

    And finally, to answer the question asked in the title to this piece: Sex scandals are indeed national security threats—and also a box of hamsters.

    • Read Mackenzie Eaglen: Americans Should Be Thankful for Our National Security
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