A Traveler In The Foreign Service: The Petraeus Fallout – Keep Your Pants On And Watch Out For Honorary Consuls

david petraeus and paula broadwell scandal photo of them togetherIn the wake of the David Petraeus-Paula Broadwell-Jill Kelley scandal, many Americans are wondering why General Petraeus felt compelled to resign. Shouldn’t consenting adults be allowed to cheat on their spouses, so long as it doesn’t impact their job performance? The most recommended comment on a New York Times story in the immediate aftermath of Petraeus’ resignation follows this line of thinking.

“I fail to see how Petreus’ (sic) private life has any bearing on his effectiveness as a public servant,” wrote a reader from Minnesota identifying himself as Skeptical.

But the truth is that there is no real work/private life separation for CIA spooks, Foreign Service diplomats and anyone else with a top-secret security clearance that gives them access to classified information. As the director of the CIA, Petraeus is a huge fish, but even much lower level government employees have seen their careers go up in smoke based upon allegations of infidelity.


cia with naked woman silhouetteI know of a few cases where Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) had their security clearances suspended for allegedly cheating on spouses but for every one of those situations, there are several others where the employee keeps their security clearance while their “corridor reputation” is essentially shot.

It might seem unfair, but anyone who has access to classified material – and that includes someone way down at the bottom of the food chain like Bradley Manning, the accused WikiLeaks whistleblower, all the way up to someone like Petraeus – is susceptible to blackmail if they have secrets they don’t want anyone to know about.

A lot of Foreign Service hopefuls stress out about getting a security clearance. They worry that they may have smoked too many joints or their dicey credit score or a cranky old neighbor who might rat them out for some real or imagined offense. But the truth is that investigators are mostly digging around to see if the applicant is susceptible to blackmail for any reason – infidelity, debts, sexual orientation, etc.

The bottom line is that if you have a security clearance, you’d better be faithful to your spouse. (And even if you don’t, it’s a pretty good rule of thumb, don’t you think?) So if you want to join the Foreign Service, it’s probably best to forget about wife swapping, swinger’s parties, soliciting prostitutes and anything else that could spell the end of your career.

There are no hard stats on divorce rates in the Foreign Service, but there is anecdotal evidence that the Foreign Service lifestyle can be hard on marriages. In an era when our biggest posts are unaccompanied and more FSOs are being asked to live without their spouses for a year or more at a time, it’s easy to understand how respected people like Petraeus could go astray.

paula broadwellPeople who are put together in a highly stressful, claustrophobic, foreign environment, away from their families are more susceptible to temptation. That is not to excuse it, but if you read books like Kim Barker’s “Taliban Shuffle,” you get a sense that there’s a lot more partying and infidelity among the expats in Kabul than one might expect.

The other diplomacy-related takeaway from the scandal is Jill Kelley’s bizarre claim that she has diplomatic immunity, based upon the fact that she is apparently an honorary consul for South Korea.

“I’m an honorary consul general so I have inviolability, so they (the press), um should not be able to cross my property,” she said to a 911 operator. “I don’t know if you want to get diplomatic protection involved as well.” (See video below.)


Honorary consuls don’t have diplomatic immunity and their lawns certainly aren’t “inviolable” as embassies and consulates are, but give her credit for trying. The truth is that there are a lot of very bogus people, like Kelley, trying to pawn themselves off as diplomats. The Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger exposed the murky world of pay-for-title sham diplomats in his terrific film “The Ambassador,” which is available on iTunes, but even he might have to laugh at Kelley’s audacity.

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[Photo credits: Michal Spocko, Mike Licht, and The Tim Channel on Flickr]