When David Petraeus left a federal courtroom last April in Charlotte, NC, contrite, humiliated, and guilty, it was less a victory for our system of justice than another example of how our pretense of equal justice for all is simply untrue.
David Petraeus, former four-star General and boss of our endless and aimless Afghan war, Obama’s choice as CIA director who was once viewed by the Imperial City’s power brokers as presidential timber. admitted he had leaked his private notebooks filled with confidential, classified data to his biographer and lover. The material also included the identities of clandestine agents. He was also charged with lying to the FBI, normally a swift one-way ticket to the nearest federal jailhouse. Court papers had Petraeus describing the stuff he handed his lover/biographer: “They are highly classified, some of them.” For this he received 2 years’ probation and a $100,000 fine.
So why the uproar? “Some in the FBI and the Justice Department,” the NY Times reported, believed that Eric Holder, Obama’s Attorney General, had used, or so the Times noted, a “double standard.” Why the selective prosecution when Holder had been so hard on less important, commonplace government employees who had fed information to reporters about actions they believed to be illegal and been sent to prison? Why was Holder so easy on Petraeus? Anyone else of lesser star power would surely have wound up behind bars. Is it that a wall of silence and an uninformed and therefore uninterested public allows agencies to continue on surreptitiously and unaccountably?
Personally, I’m not interested in seeing someone like Petraeus -- who had, after all, served his country well-- hauled off to join our jam-packed prison population, but it’s the disparity between the soft landing he received and the harsh sentences handed out to many victims of the racist Woodrow Wilson’s still extant 1917-1918 Espionage Act.
Remember the Espionage Act of 1917? It was the child of wartime hysteria, when hundreds of nonconformists– if not more-- were prosecuted. Its best-known victim was Eugene Victor Debs, the Socialist Party and labor union leader, who was handed a ten year sentence for daring to oppose the sanctity of the draft. Debs, by the way, was not released until a far more generous and tolerant President Warren Harding commuted his sentence and then invited him to join him for breakfast in the White House. (Hopeful suggestion to President Obama: Snowden, our premier whistleblower, languishing in Moscow, would surely welcome a meal with you even though much earlier you had delivered your verdict: “No, I don’t think Mr. Snowden was a patriot.”)
If not Snowden then why not Thomas Drake or Shamai Leibowitz or Stephen Jin-Woo Kim or Jeffrey Sterling, etc., former government employees, for telling things considered too hush-hush for non-Washington outsiders.
Or. If not them, why not John Kiriakou, still serving his 30 month sentence in a federal prison? He was for twenty years a CIA employee who told a reporter about a covert CIA agent in its “interrogation” unit. When Rep. James Moran (Dem-VA) asked Obama last November to pardon Kairiakou – did he ever receive a response? --- he said, “The real issue here is the extremely selective prosecution of John [and every other whistleblower/leaker-- MP] and the ongoing efforts to intimidate him from talking about our intelligence community’s misfires.”
And how about former Pfc. Chelsea Manning’s draconian sentence for revealing information about torture and the “Collateral Murder” video when on July 12, 2007 an Apache copter raid near Baghdad killed twelve civilians including two Reuter’s staffers. It so alarmed him that he asked his superiors to intervene and was instead ignored and what the video revealed dismissed. Unable to persuade his supervisors that something awful had occurred—the Apache crew was later essentially absolved by the military and I’ve since learned that two U.S. soldiers wrote an apologetic open-letter of “reconciliation and responsibility)--- he sent the compromising video to WikiLeaks.
Who, then, was the moral soldier: Manning who spoke out and risked her life or the military judges who preferred she keep her mouth shut?
Even so, a military court judge ruled that whatever Manning did was not “aiding the enemy,” but rather a violation of Wilson’s old Espionage Act and the theft of U.S. property. Only a low level soldier in the military’s pecking order, she was a scapegoat in our cruel, insoluble Middle Eastern wars. No probation or fine a la Petraeus. For Manning, it was 35 years in a Leavenworth cage. It was Obama who once said about Manning “We’re a nation of laws. We don’t individually make our own decisions about how the laws operate…. He broke the law.” So, no breakfast in the White House for her, either.
Shipped back the States, Manning, still untried, received such punishing treatment in the Marine brig in Quantico, VA., that Amnesty International and the ACLU felt compelled to protest. Happily for all Americans, a singular and honorable American hero named P.J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman, emerged. Standing out from the usual run of sycophants in Washington, Crowley objected to Manning’s treatment and quit.
Petraeus is now off the hook, having joined KKR Global Institute, one of the world’s leading private equity firms. Politico also reported that he “recently provided the White House with advice on how to deal with the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.” And now the Internet is awash with allegations that Eric Holder has been hired by JPMorgan Chase for a very handsome salary plus bonuses.
Still, wouldn’t it would be a healthy sign for our Republic if some congressional committee politely asked Holder why the disparity in punishment? We’ll probably never know but it’s still worth asking.
Murray Polner is a veteran journalist and author of several books. He is a co-author of 'Disarmed and Dangerous: The Radical Lives of Daniel and Philip Berrigan.'