Journalists that covered David Petraeus, both in his capacity as a General in Iraq and Afghanistan, and later as the director of the CIA, have done a lot of public soul searching in the wake of his recent scandal. Bob speaks to international investigative reporter Jon Lee Anderson about what he sees as the media's failings in covering Petraeus.
MAN: This all started with an FBI investigation into e-mails between Petraeus and his biographer.
MAN: Petraeus and Broadwell had exchanged numerous messages, some of them coded, others explicit.
MAN: The Commander of American forces in Afghanistan John Allen, he’s implicated, as well, Apparently 20 to 30,000 pages of e-mails with Joe Kelley who set the FBI on Paula Broadwell.
WOMAN: - learned the name of that mystery agent who first exposed the Petraeus affair. He is Frederick Humphreys, notorious for sending shirtless photos of himself to another key player in the sequel.
BOB GARFIELD: And what a long, strange week it's been for David Petraeus and anyone who consumes the news. What started out as his exposed affair with his biographer soon enveloped another general, another woman and an FBI agent. Every news cycle offered a new twist. Shirtless photos, vague threats, burner e-mail accounts, this scandal had everything, including a few journalistic mea culpas from writers at places like the New York Times and Wired, admissions that they too had fallen prey to the appeal of Petraeus. They say he seduced them into uncritical coverage by being precisely what no one expects a military or government official to be: thoughtful, intellectual, candid and accessible. Investigative international reporter Jon Anderson says Petraeus became a lighthouse in the fog for war reporters.
JON LEE ANDERSON: I think those reporters who were on the ground risking their lives and trying to see some light through the chaos in places like Iraq and Afghanistan found in Petraeus someone who seemed to be a kind of virtuous warrior. He was attributed almost mythic qualities that he could never truly live up to and which, of course, weren’t the whole story of those wars. We began to feel good about ourselves again.
BOB GARFIELD: He was very savvy and charming, in a way that a lot of top military commanders aren't. There was no Pentagon- speak, there were no clipped disingenuous statements. He spent time getting to know the reporters who covered him. Is that necessarily manipulative?
JON LEE ANDERSON: No, I’m not suggesting he personally was. I put the onus of responsibility more on the kind of collective urge to find a hero by Americans, and which reporters were amongst them, in many cases with the best of intentions. They found a charming man. Charm is a nice attribute but it’s not a virtue. It doesn't mean that you are necessarily a heroic figure because you’re charming and because your predecessors were rude.
BOB GARFIELD: The General Petraeus that won Washington over was certainly very convenient for the George W. Bush administration. After the debacle of Iraq, he personified a sense of command and success.
JON LEE ANDERSON: Whereas before our, our gaze had been fixated upon the kind of behavior of, of people like [LAUGHS] George Bush, Dick Cheney and, and Donald Rumsfeld, with their kind of arrogant attitudes and unremittingly bellicose posturing. While on the ground in these wars, what we were seeing was an unraveling. And so, to finally have a commander come along who spoke bluntly and honestly, if only in private to some reporters, about a degree of American error in the war, must have been refreshing to those reporters. Yes, to a certain degree, David Petraeus was a concoction of both White House media manipulation and a kind of willingness on the part of, of journalists to have a guy like this.
BOB GARFIELD: Your piece looked at how the press at large handled Petraeus, but you express no personal culpability in your reporting. To what degree were you, yourself, guilty of falling under the spell of this charismatic commander?
JON LEE ANDERSON: This may sound self-serving, but I don’t include myself in it. I didn't report with him. I had been in Iraq before the war and I went through the American shock and awe invasion, staying in Baghdad, to rather than being embedded with troops. And I, to the longest extent possible, I continued to try to report Iraq from the Iraqi perspective, which I felt was sorely lacking and useful. So having been through all of that, I wasn’t likely to swoon at the first sight of a kind of general that talked nice.
BOB GARFIELD: But wasn’t his very competence and openness in the face of opacity in a string of strategic blunders the very qualities that made him so appealing to the press who had seen exactly the same errors that you had?
JON LEE ANDERSON: I think that at some level most Americans who were in Iraq were aware that this was a sinking ship, and the fact that he emerged and he somehow seemed to be a kind of, you know, straight shooter, a Boy Scout type, many people warmed to him for that reason. My point is not that they were wrong necessarily to do so, I’m merely pointing out the syndrome. And we mostly thought of him when we thought of Iraq, rather than Blackwater, Fallujah, Abu Ghraiband all the rest of the sad and tawdry things that we somehow brought about in that country.
BOB GARFIELD: You know, we continue to talk about Petraeus in the past tense here. He’s not dead, he is not accused of a crime [LAUGHS], but clearly, he has been shown to be a god with feet of clay. The question is could he have gotten there without the press deifying him, to begin with?
JON LEE ANDERSON: I do think that this is probably not a bad thing for David Petraeus. You know, he may well be a man of heroic proportions. If he is, when all of the smoke clears we will know that, because what was not truly him, what was concocted, whether by the press or by the White House or whoever, will have disappeared. We will see a man who has great qualities and feet of clay, and that's probably a better sort of hero to have in our day and age.
BOB GARFIELD: Jon Lee, thank you very much.
JON LEE ANDERSON: You’re welcome.
BOB GARFIELD: Jon Lee Anderson wrote “The Petraeus Illusion” for The New Yorker.