How Chuck Klosterman's Ethicist Column Got Tangled in the Petraeus Affair

Connor Simpson
How Chuck Klosterman's Ethicist Column Got Tangled in the Petraeus Affair

There's currently a conspiracy theory that's gaining some traction on Twitter asking whether the husband of CIA Director David Petraeus' mistress asked Chuck Klosterman, the New York Times Magazine's Ethicist, whether or not he should expose the affair. 

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That is a bit much to deal with this early in the morning, no? Were you able to follow everything? Let's take a look at the evidence. Foreign Policy's Blake Hounshell linked to this July edition of Klosterman's Ethicist column on Twitter. "Interesting letter," was all he had to say. The Twitter echo chamber did the rest. 

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The second letter in the entry reads: 


My wife is having an affair with a government executive. His role is to manage a project whose progress is seen worldwide as a demonstration of American leadership. (This might seem hyperbolic, but it is not an exaggeration.) I have met with him on several occasions, and he has been gracious. (I doubt if he is aware of my knowledge.) I have watched the affair intensify over the last year, and I have also benefited from his generosity. He is engaged in work that I am passionate about and is absolutely the right person for the job. I strongly feel that exposing the affair will create a major distraction that would adversely impact the success of an important effort. My issue: Should I acknowledge this affair and finally force closure? Should I suffer in silence for the next year or two for a project I feel must succeed? Should I be “true to my heart” and walk away from the entire miserable situation and put the episode behind me? NAME WITHHELD

The scary part about the letter is how well everything fits the timeline we know about Petraeus' affair. Following the affair conspiracy theory logic, the letter writer would be Scott Broadwell. It's been confirmed that Petraeus' mistress was Paula Broadwell, Petraeus' biographer and Scott's wife. The affair began in August 2011 and ended "months ago," but it's unclear when exactly. Either way, it fits the supposed timeline of the letter writer's dilemma and there's no arguing Petraeus was a "government executive" who's "seen worldwide as a demonstration of American leadership." He's the director of the freakin' CIA. The only other government executives we can think of who could be "seen worldwide as a demonstration of American leadership," are the President, or Bill Clinton.

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Moving on...

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Klosterman's response, to his credit, was wise and heartfelt and maybe even prescient: 

This is between you and your spouse. You should tell her you want to separate, just as you would if she were sleeping with the mailman. The idea of “suffering in silence” for the good of the project is illogical. How would the quiet divorce of this man’s mistress hurt an international leadership initiative? He’d probably be relieved.


Do you admire this man so much that you haven’t asked your wife why she keeps having sex with him? I halfway suspect you’re writing this letter because you want specific people to read this column and deduce who is involved and what’s really going on behind closed doors (without actually addressing the conflict in person). That’s not ethical, either.

Emphasis ours. Klosterman nailed the weight of an affair perfectly. It's something that shouldn't be exposed first in public, no matter who the participants are. And, assuming it is Broadwell, saw through the letter for what it was: a plea for his own marriage. 

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Assuming the letter was written by Scott Broadwell, Klosterman would have had to put everything together and traced it all back to Petraeus using the kind of string-on-cork board mystery solving you see crazy people use in bad movies. In comparison, the FBI weren't tipped off to the affair until she tried to access his personal Gmail account. 

Slate has reached out to (the notoriously hard to get ahold of) Klosterman for comment regarding his possible scooping of a major national security story, in an advice column of all places. There's also been speculation over whether or not the Times' newly controversial public editor Margaret Sullivan will weigh in on this. The job of the public editor is to hold the paper accountable to its' own ethical standards.

The idea of the public editor ethicizing on the Ethicist is a little too hilarious:

Now we'll probably get to see the @nytimes public editor take on the ethicist. how meta can you get?

— Peter Feld (@peterfeld) November 10, 2012