More Generals Demoted For Sexual Misconduct Than Lost Wars

Speculation is rife that four-star general David Petraeus may be demoted, and the reason has little to do with commanding an army

(Photo: Getty, Photo Illustration: Diana Quach/Vocativ)
Jan 24, 2016 at 1:15 PM ET

Pentagon officials have confirmed that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter is considering docking once widely-lauded General David Petraeus a star for divulging classified information to his biographer Paula Broadwell. Last year, Petraeus admitted to showing Broadwell top secret documents when they were having an affair and he was running the CIA. In his review, Carter could demote Petraeus and force him to pay back some of his roughly $220,000 pension.

Now retired, Petraeus is one of several high-ranking military officers in recent years to be demoted for personal misconduct, although virtually no generals or admirals have been reduced in rank for crimes, misdeeds or errors related directly to combat. “In recent years senior officers are much more likely to be relieved for personal indiscretions than failing to win wars,” Kori Shacke, a scholar of military history at the Hoover Institute, told Vocativ.

Despite findings of wrong-doing, high ranking officers regularly escape prison time. “The services tend to let senior officers retire quietly,” said Shacke. “That leads to cynicism from the junior ranks—officer and enlisted—that the rules aren’t being applied fairly. Petraeus would be in jail if he’d been lower-ranking.”

Petraeus served as top commander in Iraq and Afghanistan before retiring to take the helm at the CIA. He is considered one of the most influential military minds of his generation. Following a drawn-out public scandal revolving around his affair, he pleaded guilty last April to mishandling classified information after a three-year long FBI investigation. As part of the deal, Petraeus was given two years probation and a $100,000 fine, but avoided jail time.

The consequences of demotion are generally mild compared to prison. Officers may be forced to pay the government the difference in salary between their highest rank and their reduced rank, which can amount to a fee of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Other times the punishment is societal, and the military considers the public shaming to be sufficient.

The most recent case in which a top military official was demoted was in 2014, when then-Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair faced court martial for allegations of sexual assault. Sinclair faced life in prison if convicted under the most serious charges, in a trial that was a public relations nightmare for the military. He was eventually demoted two ranks to lieutenant-colonel and was fined $20,000, but he didn’t spend time in prison. According to reports, it was the first time in more than a decade that a retiring general was demoted two ranks.

Around the same time, two-star general Ralph O. Baker was allowed to retire—with little media scrutiny—after he lost a star following accusations that he’d groped a senior advisor. The Army didn’t disclose the reason for Baker’s retirement, and the allegation of sexual misconduct only came to light after the Washington Post filed a Freedom of Information Act request.

Unlike Baker and Sinclair, Petraeus is a four-star general, and until his demise, one of the military’s greatest luminaries. At any one time, the United States has very few active four star generals, and it’s rare for one of them—whether on active duty or retired—to get knocked down in rank. One of the few recent exceptions was William Ward, who was reduced to Lieutenant Colonel after an inspector general’s investigation found that Ward regularly extended trips overseas to include stays at hotel suites and spas, and that he and his wife accepted backstage passes to a Broadway show starring Denzel Washington. The report detailed a pattern of wasting government money on unnecessary flights, lodging and car transportation.

Some high-profile cases resulted in investigations but no demotions. Over the summer, Major General Dana Pittard faced a potential reduction in rank after an Army investigation found he’d given former classmates preferential treatment in securing a lucrative government contract. He was formally reprimanded—though he wasn’t demoted—and is now retired. Marine General John Allen similarly retired after a federal investigation into emails exchanged with Jill Kelley, a Tampa woman at the center of the Petraeus scandal who received threatening emails from Broadwell.

A generation ago, retired Admiral Richard Dunleavy was demoted for his role in what became known as the Tailhook scandal. In 1993, Pentagon officials determined Dunleavy didn’t do enough to stop an atmosphere of sexual harassment and abuse during a military convention at a hotel in Las Vegas. Reports found that 83 women and seven men were assaulted over the course of three days of fraternity-style harassment.