Gen. Petraeus Felled By “Icarus Syndrome” And Big Brother

Bob Barr

11/13/2012 12:01:00 AM - Bob Barr

Retired, four-star Army Gen. David Petraeus is paying the price for his hubris in much the same way as did the mythical figure Icarus who, like Petraeus, thought himself invincible but discovered otherwise when he flew too close to the sun before crashing back to earth. The now-retired CIA Director flew not too close to the sun, but rather ignored basic rules of secrecy, and ran afoul of the virtually limitless powers of surveillance we have placed in the hands of the FBI and other government agencies.

Like former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer before him, Petraeus’ sexual peccadillos were unmasked not by a scorned lover; rather they both were undone by surveillance tools lawfully lodged in the hands of federal regulators and investigators by the Congress of the United States.

In early 2008, Spitzer was forced to resign as governor of the Empire State when it was revealed he was enjoying the services of an exclusive call-girl service. The then-governor’s apparently long-running relationship came to the attention of the FBI not because its agents set out to catch Spitzer for sexual dalliances. What tipped off the feds were convoluted monetary transactions which Spitzer employed to pay for the escorts. These not-otherwise unlawful transactions initially were brought to the attention of federal investigators by financial institutions reporting what someone concluded were “suspicious transactions.”

Under federal law and pursuant to extensive federal regulations, employees of banks and other financial institutions are supposed to report any dealings of their customers which they deem “suspicious,” through what are called “Suspicious Activity Reports” (SARs). Unbeknownst to the average bank customer – and apparently even to some not-so-average customers like Spitzer – such documents may be filed and the data reflected therein data-based, without ever notifying the customer (and without ever securing a judicial warrant).

One thing can lead to another, and Bingo, a person’s private endeavors – whether legal or not – come to the attention of prosecuting authorities. If the victim of such investigation happens to be a public figure, the Icarus effect usually follows in short order.

In Petraeus’ case, it was not a matter of financial transactions being reported that did him in, but jealously between his paramour and another woman; jealousy that resulted in a chain of e-mails. While the e-mails between the two women do not appear to constitute communications reasonably considered to be “threatening,” when the FBI got hold of them, its agents believed otherwise, and launched an extensive investigation. As with the investigation of Spitzer, the feds maintain with a straight face their investigation was launched to “protect” the public figure.

The lessons we glean from this incident are many. Most are obvious, such as not engaging in behavior in which Petraeus engaged, and certainly not creating e-mail records thereof if you break Rule Number One.

Perhaps not quite so obvious, however, are lessons we as a nation ought to contemplate in the wake of this scandal.

Have we mistakenly elevated military leaders like Petraeus to near God-like status, and in so doing fostered in them a sense that they serve on a level far above the average military personnel or civilian citizen? Petraeus was, by all objective accounts, an outstanding military officer. But should we really allow a fawning biographer to spend months following a top Army general around, while he is supposed to be engaged in vital military duties, just so he can look good in a subsequently-published biography?

Is any general – or retired general holding a top-level civilian post in government – so exceptional that the normal rules of public service, including obligations to respond to legitimate inquiries from our elected representatives, are deemed not to apply?

And, do we really want to live in a society in which our every action involving some form of electronic communication – from a personal e-mail to a simple credit card transaction -- is easily accessible by a federal investigator sifting through secret algorithms to “discover” patterns of behavior seemed “suspicious,” and thereafter to be investigated? Because that’s right where we are, folks.