Former director of the CIA General David Petraeus attends the Allen & Co Media Conference in Sun Valley. Picture: REUTERS
Former director of the CIA General David Petraeus attends the Allen & Co Media Conference in Sun Valley. Picture: REUTERS

THE David Petraeus affair has to be a dream you wake up from. It cannot be true. Surely the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent at the heart of the investigation could not have been sending shirtless photos to Jill Kelley, the damsel in distress and wealthy socialite in Tampa, Florida, who was allegedly being harassed by Paula Broadwell.

Ms Broadwell, of course, is the former mistress and then Gen Petraeus’s biographer who wins the prize for the least clothing worn in an interview with Jon Stewart, who asked her the most pressing question raised by her book about the former army general and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director: "Is he awesome, or incredibly awesome?"

Then another general fell. As federal agents were carrying a computer out of Mr Broadwell’s house in North Carolina, the Pentagon announced the FBI was investigating four-star Gen John Allen, who took over in Afghanistan after Gen Petraeus went to the CIA.

Gen Allen is said to have sent thousands of pages of e-mails to Ms Kelley, whose complaint about Ms Broadwell got this whole story going.

All of which raises an important question about national security: What’s in the water at the Pentagon, stupid juice?

It’s hard not to follow all this and resist thinking, "I’m dumb, but I’m not that dumb." Each character is so predictable this story could go straight to HBO.

In Ms Broadwell, Gen Petraeus met his match in mixing love and career — he had married the daughter of the superintendent at West Point — but failed to realise she was attracted as much to the four stars on his shoulder as to his sense of humour and love of walks on the beach. The two stars collided at an apres-lecture dinner at Harvard when she asked for some time to ask a few questions, as she was a "researcher".

She posed her questions, sometimes while running with him, and thus was the biography All In produced. Those around Gen Petraeus saw how blinded he was, questioning how much access she had. There was a war going on, after all. He listened to criticism, once telling her to put away the revealing outfits when in Afghanistan. But his door stayed open.

With Gen Petraeus’s resignation, it’s time to rethink why personal stupidity that doesn’t affect someone’s job should automatically result in resignation. In matters romantic, we can all be stupid.

Once the FBI saw it had uncovered an extramarital affair, not an affair of state, the agency should have reined in that rogue topless agent and called it a day. But it didn’t, and when national intelligence director James Clapper learned of Gen Petraeus’s behaviour, he told him he would have to resign — and eventually the president accepted.

There was no crime or breach of national security. The rules regarding personal behaviour at the CIA are more lenient than those in the military. The antiquated fear that someone with a sexual secret can be blackmailed is operative only if Mr Clapper and others make it so. If having an affair isn’t enough to get someone fired, then it probably isn’t enough to be used as blackmail.

Gen Petraeus rightly didn’t think he would have to resign until last week. The Petraeus family was picture-perfect just last month at his daughter’s wedding. He must have known then that all hell was about to break loose — the investigation was well under way — but he probably thought he would keep his job.

Which raises another question: Why is there a different standard of private conduct for public servants than, say, for the reporters who cover them, or the lobbyists hoping they’ll approve the weapons system they’re selling? (On second thought, maybe the standards are the same, as illustrated by the resignation last week of Lockheed Martin’s CEO over a "close and personal relationship" with a subordinate. At least he got $3.5m to soften the blow.)

Yes, government officials are stewards of the public trust in a way that private executives are not. Still, it’s not clear that the Puritan streak that persists in US public life is serving the public interest. Divorce rates in the military are higher than they have been in more than a decade. Multiple deployments are hard on everyone, from grunts to the brass. Is the US willing to fire all these people if we find out about their infidelities?

Imagine the second term of president Bill Clinton had his terrible affair not consumed Congress and the rest of us. A few months ago, Mr Petraeus watched as his friend Brett McGurk lost his chance to become ambassador to Iraq over an affair with a reporter. It did not matter that everyone from former president George Bush to President Barack Obama thought Mr McGurk would be a great ambassador. He’d been exposed by e-mails to his then-girlfriend, now wife. Nothing unethical or criminal was found, yet they both lost their careers over it.

Once upon a time, it would have been hard to expose Gen Petraeus. Love letters could be stashed away in a box. No more. Love may be fleeting, but e-mail is forever. The US now had this technology long enough to know that any time you click "send", your innermost thoughts may become known not just to the recipient but to your employer, the recipient’s employer, the FBI and the New York Times.

What is criminal here is that the FBI kept investigating even after realising what it had on its hands was a reckless affair — and aren’t they all? — not a threat to national security.

The punishment suffered privately is more than enough.