Three years ago, CIA Director David Petraeus applauded the conviction of John Kiriakou, a former CIA analyst and case officer who pleaded guilty to leaking to a reporter the identity of a covert CIA officer involved in the agency's so-called enhanced interrogation.
"Oaths do matter, and there are indeed consequences for those who believe they are above the laws that protect our fellow officers and enable American intelligence agencies to operate with the requisite degree of secrecy," Petraeus said in a message sent to CIA employees on October 23, 2012.
Those high-minded words have now come back to haunt the country's former top spy and four-star army general who devised the counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On Tuesday, Petraeus, 62, pleaded guilty to a single count of unauthorized removal and retention of classified material while he was director of the CIA. Government prosecutors said Petraeus allowed Paula Broadwell, his mistress and biographer, to gain access to so-called "black books" — eight notebooks that contained highly classified "national defense information," code words, the identities of covert officers, war plans and "classified and unclassified notes that he took during official meetings, conferences, and briefings." The information stems from his time serving as commander of US forces in Afghanistan, according to court papers filed Tuesday in US District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, the state where Broadwell resides.
The resolution to the government's three-year criminal investigation means that Petraeus will avoid a potentially embarrassing trial that could have led to the disclosure of intimate details about his affair with Broadwell. Petraeus remains married to his wife of 40 years, Holly.
But unlike Kiriakou, whose conviction Petraeus said in 2012 marked an "important victory for our agency," Petraeus won't be jailed for his crimes. The Justice Department recommended that Petraeus plead guilty to a misdemeanor, pay a $40,000 fine, and be placed on probation for two years.
The plea deal, which Petraeus signed and a judge needs to approve, reveals that Petraeus provided Broadwell with access to classified information in August 2011, and lied about it when FBI agents interviewed him just three days after he issued his "oaths matter" statement about the Kiriakou case.
"On or about October 26, 2012, defendant David Howell Petraeus was interviewed by two FBI special agents" at his office at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, a 15-page "statement of facts" attached to the plea agreement says. Petraeus "was advised that the special agents were conducting a criminal investigation. During that interview, the special agents questioned David Howell Petraeus about the mishandling of classified information. In response to those questions, David Howell Petraeus stated that (a) he had never provided any classified information to his biographer, and (b) he had never facilitated the provision of classified information to his biographer. Those statements were false." Petraeus "knew that he previously shared the Black Books with his biographer."
Broadwell, a former Army Reserve officer, questioned Petraeus at his home about his "black books" in early August 2011, not long after he returned to the US from Afghanistan in a conversation that was recorded.
"By the way, where are your black books? We never went through …" Broadwell asked.
"They're in a rucksack up there somewhere," Petraeus said, referring to his home in Arlington, Virginia.
"Okay … You avoiding that? You gonna look through them first?" Broadwell said.
"Umm, well, they're really — I mean they are highly classified, some of them. They don't have it on it, but I mean there's code word stuff in there," he responded.
Later that month, Petraeus agreed to provide Broadwell with access to the notebooks, which he sent to a private residence in Washington, DC where Broadwell was staying for a week.
Petraeus left the black books at the home in DC "in order to facilitate his biographer's access to the black books and the information contained therein to be used as source material for his biography," All In: The Education of General David Petraeus, published in 2012. He retrieved the notebooks a few days later. But no classified information from the black books appeared in Broadwell's biography.
The FBI executed a search warrant on Petraeus's home in April 2013 and seized the classified black books from an "unlocked desk drawer."
FBI agents discovered the affair between Petraeus and Broadwell after launching an investigation in the fall of 2012 into a complaint filed by a Florida socialite and friend of Petraeus named Jill Kelley, who claimed she received a series of "harassing" emails from a woman who warned her that she should stay away from Petraeus. During the course of the probe, the FBI learned that Broadwell was the person sending Kelley the emails and during an examination of her computer learned of the affair and that Petraeus had shared classified information with her.
Petraeus resigned as CIA director three days after President Obama was reelected in November 2012, after news of the affair with Broadwell and the possible disclosure of classified information to her was publicly revealed. Although there was an active criminal investigation, Obama, whose administration has aggressively prosecuted leakers, said during a news conference after his reelection that he had "no evidence at this point, from what I've seen, that classified information was disclosed [by Petraeus] that in any way would have had a negative impact on our national security."
Since the New York Times revealed in January that the FBI and Justice Department recommended bringing felony charges against Petraeus, several high-profile lawmakers who have encouraged the Obama administration to prosecute leakers, have publicly defended the former CIA director despite the allegations that were leveled against him.
"This man has suffered enough," said Senator Dianne Feinstein, the former chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, during an appearance on CNN in January. "People aren't perfect. He made a mistake. He lost his job as CIA director because of it. I mean, how much do you want to punish somebody? It's done. It's over. He's retired. He's lost his job. How much does government want?"
Kiriakou, the former CIA officer who pleaded guilty to a felony charge of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act and was recently released from federal prison, told VICE News he doesn't harbor any bitterness towards Petraeus.
"He shouldn't have been charged in the first place," Kiriakou said. "There was no criminal intent and there was no harm to the national security just as in my case."
But in a message to CIA employees in January 2012, after he had already granted Broadwell access to classified information, Petraeus said "unauthorized disclosures of any sort … betray the public trust, our country and our colleagues."
"When we joined this organization, we swore to safeguard classified information; those oaths stay with us for life," he said.
The guilty plea for Petraeus completes a stunning fall for the highly decorated veteran, whose career in Iraq began in 2003 where he led combat operations for the 101st Airborne division. Petraeus also oversaw the initial stages of the occupation of Mosul and was lauded for helping win "hearts and minds." But the accolades he was showered with came too soon. Shortly after his tenure in Mosul, the police force he created collapsed in the face of an insurgent onslaught and Mosul was never really under the control of the Iraqi government at any point during the US occupation. Last year, Mosul fell entirely to Islamic State militants, becoming the largest city under their control.
Still, Petraeus's military successes in Iraq launched him to prominence. He embraced the "Sunni Awakening" councils that fought al Qaeda in Iraq from late 2005 until 2008, and the troop surge of 2007. However, the Awakening was hardly a function of US planning or strategy. US soldiers openly referred to it as the "make a sheikh" program, an acknowledgement that in some cases, tribal leaders joined up simply in an attempt to achieve dominance over other tribes or settle old rivalries.
The Awakening, which amounted to the buying off of various actors (millions of dollars were disbursed to keep the tribes onside) was accompanied by the surge, an influx of troops into Iraq that for a time made insurgent activity more difficult. Because many of those attacking US troops had been effectively bought off in the Awakening, the surge appeared more effective than in actually was.
The Awakening fell apart after the Iraqi government failed to keep its promise to integrate large numbers of Awakening members into the security forces and arrested others on charges of terrorism.