The e-mails of David Petraeus

November 14, 2012

I try to steer away from politics in my bolg, but sometimes I just need to vent on things.

Whether you believe David Petraeus is a hero or a monster, the undisputed revelations of this past week have revealed two interesting facts about him. First, he is a human being who is capable of getting into compromised situations. Second, his indiscretions were not just poor judgment, they demonstrated a lack of intelligence, which is odd for the head of the CIA.

I get a kick out of how the press describes his voluntary resignation as the “honorable thing to do.” Hello? If you are Petraeus, the honorable thing to do is to resign long before getting caught with your pants down. It baffles me how the word honor can be associated with his ouster. Let’s just hypothesize that if his affair had not been revealed, he would still hold the most trusted position in the USA? Hello? Something is more seriously wrong than a simple lack of good judgment.

The thing that reveals his lack of intelligence is that he used e-mail to communicate with his lover. I have written guidelines for e-mail excellence and teach courses on it from undergraduates to CEOs. The rules are so simple, it is sometimes embarrassing to teach them. Here are the seven major points I use to simply start the conversation about using e-mail.

1. Always use the right mode of communication
2. E-mail is completely different from conversation
3. Less is more when writing e-mails
4. The subject and first sentence set the tone
5. E-mails are permanent documents – never write what could hang you
6. Make sure your note is consistent with your real objectives
7. Write only when you are reflecting your true self and not in a compromised situation

A quick scan of these obvious principles reveals that David was unaware or chose to ignore six out of seven of these most basic rules. I cannot tell if he violated rule four because I have not read any of his notes. One could argue that he was actually following rule number seven, but the true self he was masquerading as was not in the room when he wrote his notes.

It is particularly scary that the person who was entrusted with America’s most closely guarded information would act in a way that revealed him to be┬ánot at all intelligent. We might as well not have any secret documents at all and save the money spent on the CIA. If we put our faith in a man who was that flawed on the inside while we believed his integrity based on his outside behaviors, how can we ever believe in the security of information?

I realize that people are human beings and that the animal nature of hormones can sometimes cause totally illogical things to occur, but if that is so, then how do we ever know who to trust? The dilemma is beyond comprehension. I am not prejudging any criminal culpability here; I will let history play out and watch, like the rest of us, in utter amazement. The central question now is “whom do we trust?”

As a post script, I loved the title of an article by Michael Hirsh in National Journal on November 13. It read “Two Generals, Two Women and the FBI: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?”