The Noble Art of Falling on One’s Sword

Last week two practitioners – David Petraeus of the CIA and George Entwistle of the BBC – gave us two different examples of this ancient art. Petraeus showed us how to do it when one has no choice; Entwistle when one has.

Once there was the possibility of a security risk, the private life of David Petraeus was no longer irrelevant. There was no way out for him. This is no reflection of the puritanical nature of American life. No intelligence chief anywhere in the world can have a secret extramarital affair without becoming vulnerable to blackmail.

George Entwistle had been director-general of the BBC only since September 17, for fifty-two days. He could have stayed in office. The BBC is in the middle of a major crisis caused, among other factors, by incompetent journalism. But he knew nothing about the story that hit the headlines until after it had been broadcast. He resigned because he thought he should have known before and took responsibility.

No doubt he considered it a matter of honour. But he could have decided honour demanded that he stay and initiate the reforms necessary to enable the BBC to meet its challenges.

Falling on his sword was easier.


5 responses to “The Noble Art of Falling on One’s Sword

  1. And yet Allen Dulles (the brother of then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles), who ran the CIA from 1953 to 1961 had, as his sister, Eleanor, wrote later, “at least a hundred” extramarital affairs. Times, and standards, change!

  2. Maybe… Here’s the conclusion of the NYT piece linked to above:

    “Dulles’s behavior was well known in Washington and elsewhere, but never publicly reported. By the journalistic codes of the 1950s, it was not newsworthy.

    The same code applied to Dulles’s superiors. Presidents Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy entrusted the security of the United States to him. What Dulles did in his private life, even when it intersected with his public role, was considered none of their business.

    Allen Dulles, who died in 1969, may have been, as one biographer claimed, “the greatest intelligence officer who ever lived.” Yet by today’s standards, this master spy would not have been allowed even to join the C.I.A., much less lead it.”

  3. Apparently General Petraeus is still subject to the US military rules – and that makes extra-marital sex a serious offence – so he had to go by the military rules. If he had been a civilian from the outset, then once the affair became known, there was no more security risk. Recall that a high Canadian commander in Afghanistan was removed for the same reason (though not the same woman…)

  4. So, while it was a secret, he could be blackmailed. After he’s outed, he’s just a risk for exercising poor judgement? If that’s what he did.

    An interesting item about Petraeus on NPR’s On the Media this week: