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Elites Abandoned Their Stance Against Leaks to Help Save Petraeus from Suffering in Jail

When David Petraeus faced a potential jail sentence for leaking classified information to his biographer, an array of corporate, military and political elites wrote letters to a federal judge requesting leniency. A number of those people were individuals who have called for leak prosecutions and have used their power to spread fear about the dangers of national security leaks.

The former CIA director and military general improperly possessed “Black Books” containing the identities of covert officers, war strategy, intelligence capabilities and other classified information, including notes from his discussions with President Barack Obama. He provided Paul Broadwell access to these books after she asked to use them as source material. He even lied to FBI special agents about leaking to his biographer and lied on a CIA “security exit form.”

However, despite the fact that the Obama administration has aggressively prosecuted others for similar conduct, the government did not seek any jail time for Petraeus. The judge sentenced Petraeus to two years of probation and fined him $100,000. Perhaps, this was the result of pressure from Petraeus’ powerful friends.

Thirty-four letters written to Judge David C. Keesler and originally filed under seal were released on Monday. It was the result of a lawsuit led by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Letters were written by Tom Donilon, former Obama national security adviser, William McRaven, former commander of US Special Operations Command, Stephen Hadley, former assistant to the president for national security affairs under George W. Bush, Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Senator Lindsey Graham and former Senator Joe Lieberman.

Graham and Lieberman refrained from commenting on what Petraeus did. Yet, Graham has previously accused the Obama administration of leaking details of classified operations to make the president “look good.” Lieberman introduced the SHIELD Act when he was a senator, an unconstitutional law that would have given the government more power to crack down on leaks.

Feinstein has fought for more criminal investigations into unauthorized disclosures and suggested NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden committed “treason.” She wrote, “As the former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and a senior commanding officer of the US Army, he understands the importance of protecting classified information. This past experience makes him regret even more deeply his conduct in this matter.”

McRaven said during the Aspen Security Forum in 2012:

…[W]e’re never happy when leaks occur, obviously. I mean, we go to great lengths to protect our national security. Very great lengths to protect our sources and methods. So all of that, we guard very carefully. Unfortunately, not everybody guards that very carefully.

And I think what you’ve seen is the secretary and the president and Capitol Hill are taking these leaks very, very seriously, as they should, and we need to do the best we can to clamp down on it. Because sooner or later, it is going to cost people their lives, or it’s going to cost us our national security.

However, there was apparently no need to clamp down on Petraeus because, as McRaven put it, “Few, if any Generals I know, and I know a lot of them, gave as much, did as much or accomplished as much as Dave Petraeus.”

On “Face the Nation” in 2013, Donilon called Snowden a “traitor” for his leaks and said he was in no way for “amnesty or clemency.” But, for Petraeus, Donilon wrote, “The past two years have been a punishing period for him and his family.” And, acknowledging continued “national security threats,” he added, “I believe it is profoundly in the national interest to have General Petraeus fully and freely involved in helping to set the nation’s course.”

Mullen accused WikiLeaks of having “blood on its hands” when it released documents on Afghanistan War. He condemned Snowden’s leak of information. But Mullen rationalized what Petraeus did.

“Dave is also humanly flawed, as many are, for which he has paid a huge price both personally and professionally. And I am certain he will deeply regret his mistakes for the rest of his life,” the retired admiral wrote.

Hadley signed on to a letter to Congress [PDF] in the weeks after documents from Snowden were first published. The letter asserted the “unauthorized disclosures” had “seriously harmed the Nation by degrading the effectiveness of our intelligence efforts.”

Although Hadley did not share his opinion of Petraeus’ crimes, he pleaded with the judge to keep Petraeus out of prison so he could help with the “increasing sectarian violence and humanitarian disaster” in Iraq—a statement that is truly rich given Hadley’s role in destroying the country through a war he still shamelessly defends.


Hypocrisy aside, the hero worship in all of these letters exuding Petraeus’ prowess and expertise as a commander is stunning given how his counterinsurgency strategy only made Iraq an even bigger quagmire.

This paragraph from the letter written by John Nagl, a retired lieutenant colonel in the US Army, is exceptional, especially because he seems to be asking the judge to deploy Petraeus against ISIS as part of his sentence:

I personally believe that his service is not yet complete, and will note that the White House continues to call upon his expertise and personal connections as we now wage war against the extraordinary evil that calls itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. I would urge you to sentence Dave to community service connected to that war, working with national decision makers and the US military to fight against an ISIS that threatens innocents around the globe. Dave is a national asset, and we cannot afford to have his talents, experience, and commitment to our collective safety sidelined at this critical juncture of the war against radical Islamic extremism. Please, your honor, have mercy on him, and put him to work on behalf of our future.

Remarkably, Nagl was asking the judge to put Petraeus in a position where he could potentially leak information again, but that probably did not occur to Nagl because he idolizes Petraeus so very much.

The letter from Atlantic Media owner, David G. Bradley, is incredible too.

Atlantic Media publishes The Atlantic and National Journal, but Bradley made it clear that he is not a journalist. He is just someone who, as an owner, can sit on a perch and “audit” the public life of Washington by being in or near conversations without participating in them. In private conversations, he shared how he has heard calls for the Justice Department to not prosecute the general from people who are “layers and layers and layers deep into the city.”

“It is no accident that General Petraeus has had a soaring career,” Bradley wrote. “But, for this hour in his life, he is brought down. Some measure of justice may take into account how high the flight and how far the fall. For me, a full measure of justice has been meted out. I hate the idea of seeing this man suffer more.”

Petraeus is a man who was responsible for torture centers in Iraq. He committed war crimes. Of course, that probably is no bother to Bradley, who has personally witnessed how the elites deeply admire the General and must as well if he is to retain his status in Washington.

When lower-level officials like former CIA officer John Kiriakou or former State Department employee Stephen Kim were prosecuted, there was not this focus on restorative justice. The humiliation they endured from being fired, the pain their families experienced during prosecution, and the loss of their service if they went to prison were insignificant. Both pled guilty to unauthorized disclosures of information and were told they had to face the consequences.

If only the elites treated all leak prosecutions as they did in the case of Petraeus. It would be more democratic and just to go easy on all leakers instead of calling for each person who releases classified information without authorization—and is not an elite—to be severely punished.

Photo from the Central Intelligence Agency and in the public domain, as it is US government work.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."


  1. bsbafflesbrains
    June 9, 2015 at 1:32 pm

    “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others” I believe they were the pigs.

  2. Alice X
    June 9, 2015 at 2:01 pm

    I was hoping to come up with something pithy and maybe even brilliant.

    The Ruling Class has their tier of justice. Our tier has no justice.

  3. bsbafflesbrains
    June 9, 2015 at 2:08 pm

    You have brought tiers to our eyes. 🙂 Punny but no pith.

  4. Canyon2
    June 9, 2015 at 3:48 pm

    When it comes to crime and punishment it only matters who you are whether you get punished or not.

  5. June 9, 2015 at 4:36 pm

    *heh* From Orwell’s Animal Farm…! 😉

  6. bsbafflesbrains
    June 9, 2015 at 4:49 pm

    Orwell is getting allot of revisiting these days, sadly. 🙂
    Here we were worrying the elites were reading too much Ayn Rand and it turns out Orwell was the instruction manual for .1%ers.

  7. June 9, 2015 at 6:37 pm

    Not only Orwell, but, his colleague, Edward Bernays, who wrote the manual on Propaganda…!

  8. CloudyTheScribbler
    June 10, 2015 at 1:27 am

    a quick contrast between the cases of Kalief Browder, who recently commit suicide at 22, and Gen. Petraeus illustrates this fundamental maxim about justice in the US today — it is better to be rich/powerful and guilty than poor and innocent. Simple as that

  9. Rockerbabe
    June 10, 2015 at 2:08 pm

    General Patraeus made a mistake; I’m not sure if any real harm came to others due to this mistake, but he deserves some consideration. He has been willing to go and fight these nasty dirty wars so many of the elites and the GOP demand (but do not go themselves). This alone has earned him some consideration.

  10. micksavage
    June 10, 2015 at 2:29 pm

    Yeah, consideration as a wife cheater and war criminal.