Monday, November 19, 2012
The public unraveling of David Petraeus' life is so bizarre it could not possibly be true. Yet it is.
And it should be a cautionary tale for everybody.
If the director of the CIA, a former general who oversaw the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, can be toppled by a thread of emails and computer postings, and then those emails lead to Gen. John Allen, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, and more scandal it begs the question -- are any of us safe?
The answer is an unwavering no. The American Civil Liberties Union is on alert and very concerned.
"There should be an investigation not of the personal behavior of Gen. Petraeus and Gen. Allen, but of what surveillance powers the FBI used to look into their private lives," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU. "This is a textbook example of the blurring of lines between the private and the public."
It is a bit more complicated than that. As the head of the CIA, Petraes personal life does matter. However, there is still some haze in this matter when it comes to computer snooping.
There is little Congress can do to bring clarity. The fact is that each of us leaves bits of information beind every time we send an email, post on Facebook or tweet. Those and every other computer file we create is stored in our computer's hard drive or in cyberspace.
So when the FBI (or the local police) are investigating alleged wrongdoing, they often must follow computer-generated documents. When they start sifting through all the documents and scandal is discovered, the information gets out. Remember, when two people know something it is no longer a secret.
In this case, the FBI was looking into computer harassment when agents caught wind of scandal.
Here is what happened (as reported by The New York Times).
A Tampa, Fla., woman, Jill Kelley -- a friend of Petraeus and Allen -- was being harassed through emails. She had received about six anonymous emails last June and had enough. Kelley took the emails to an FBI agent she had met. The agent took it to his boss who launched an investigation.
The emails are thought to have come from Paula Broadwell, the woman who helped Petraeus write his biography and with whom he later had an affair.
The investigation found the electronic messages had been sent to Allen, thus getting him involved in this scandal. Apparently some flirting was going on. It seems much more fluff than substance.
Petraeus and Allen have not been charged with any crimes.
In the end, the only reason this even became a public matter is because Petraeus resigned from his job as CIA director when it became clear to him word of the affair was spreading.
All of our lives now have an electronic trail. We can protect ourselves only by realizing what we leave behind could, even through no fault of our own, become public. That's the reality of cyber communication.