David Petraeus’ affair with his biographer ended his 37-year career. But the damage from this episode goes far wider

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Karen Bleier / AFP / Getty Images

CIA Director David Petraeus testifies before the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee during a full committee hearing on "World Wide Threats" in Washington, D.C. Jan. 31, 2012

Into the Woods
The voice on the phone was heavy and slow, with a sadness that retired General Jack Keane had not heard from Petraeus before.

“I really screwed up,” Petraeus told his old mentor over the weekend as the scandal swelled around him. That was something of an understatement, as his 37-year career, the future leadership of the CIA, the performance of the FBI and the Attorney General and the career of a top U.S. combatant commander were all suddenly thrown into jeopardy. “This is my fault, and I’m devastated by the pain and suffering that I’ve caused,” Petraeus told Peter Mansoor, one of his old brain-trust colonels. He said that “what he did was a morally reprehensible action,” Mansoor says.

Mistakes have not been a Petraeus hallmark. After graduating from West Point in 1974, Petraeus clambered up the Army’s greasy pole, moving from field assignments to graduate school—he earned a Ph.D. from Princeton in 1987—and serving as an aide to powerful generals, including an Army chief of staff, a NATO military chief and a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He began to lap his comrades in 2003, when he led the 101st Airborne into Iraq and north to Mosul. His star rose even higher in 2007–’08, when he returned to Iraq and shifted, midwar, to a counterinsurgency strategy based on protecting civilians with help from a 30,000-strong U.S. troop surge. His success in aborting an Iraqi civil war prompted President Bush to put him in charge of the entire U.S. Central Command in 2008, where he oversaw the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But in military circles, Petraeus had always been a more controversial figure than his reputation suggested. He developed a cultlike staff, which isn’t unusual among generals, though Petraeus’ retinue seemed excessively devoted to their boss. He was as adept at cultivating politicians and reporters as he was at engaging the enemy. Neoconservatives saw him as their standard bearer as the Iraq conflict they had championed bogged down. “Petraeus is a remarkable piece of fiction created and promoted by neocons in government, the media and academia,” argues Douglas Macgregor, an outspoken retired Army colonel. “How does an officer with no personal experience of direct-fire combat in Panama or Desert Storm become a division commander?”

(MORE: The Rise and Fall of ‘General Peaches’)

Petraeus’ move from rock-star four-star to head of the CIA in 2011 came as a surprise in Washington. He had served only a year in Afghanistan and seemed destined to rise to the top of the military at the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But former CIA director Bob Gates told him otherwise: Obama’s White House did not want him in that role. It was Petraeus’ idea, in response, to move to Langley, a close friend says. That solved a lot of problems for Obama, allowing him good use of the general’s talents and diverting him from a possible presidential bid. Cashing in the uniform he had worn since West Point to decamp to the wooded enclave of Ph.D. analysts and hardened spy runners at Langley was not just a dramatic career shift for Petraeus; it was also a move that had little precedent in recent agency history. Gates told Petraeus before he arrived to leave his boarding party behind: past directors who had arrived with an entourage, like Porter Goss and John Deutch, had not been well received. At his confirmation hearings, Petraeus said he’d use his star status to recruit the best agents and analysts available for the agency. He also suggested he would lose his posse: “If confirmed, I will, in short, get out of my vehicle alone on the day that I report to Langley.”

But many senior officers, even those who aren’t as accustomed to aides and horse holders as Petraeus was, can find leaving the Army a challenge, and Petraeus seems to have had some trouble adjusting to the CIA. The agency is strange, rigorous and demanding, as moody as it is secretive. “The agency is not a militaristic organization,” says a senior former intelligence official. “They don’t welcome people barking orders without debate.” Petraeus turned up at one event in a suit with his Army medals pinned to his jacket.

“The Election Played No Role”
By the time Petraeus got to the CIA, Broadwell had been working closely with him for years. Her sugary ­biography of him, titled All In, came out in January 2012. She allowed herself more freedom than most to use nicknames for Petraeus that others might not have chosen to write down: Dangerous Dave, even Peaches. But she was careful to position herself as a serious biographer, not a fan. In a February appearance with celebrity interviewer Arthur Kade, she volunteered, unprompted, “You know, it’s not a hagiography. I’m not in love with David Petraeus, but I think he does present a terrific role model for young people, for executives, for men and women.” Former Petraeus aide and Army Brigadier General Peter DeLuca thinks he understands what happened. “The guy is supergifted, superdetermined, supercommitted. He’s the closest thing most of us have ever met to a superman, but he’s still a man.”

Nor was Broadwell without a larger plan. After running with Lance Armstrong in July, she volunteered her secret purpose to at least six new acquaintances at the Aspen conference. That evening, over drinks, she told a small group that she had been arguing with her mentor about the direction of her career. Republican moneymen, she said, had approached her about a Senate run in North Carolina. She was tempted. Petraeus, she said in an irritated tone, rejected the idea out of hand. What was her position, he asked, on abortion? Climate change? Gun control? Gay marriage? Tax cuts? Social Security vouchers? Her answers, he told her, would not fit either party, and she should not sell herself out.

MORE: Exit Petraeus — and His Famous Military Doctrine

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