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The past 24 hours have taught me more about the media than all my years working for Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, or contributing to Fox News. A conversation that began in jest and that led to a passing comment at the end of my interview with General David Petraeus has turned into a firestorm of speculation and an attempt to denigrate Fox.
In April 2011 I visited Afghanistan, and sat down for an interview with Petraeus in his office at ISAF Headquarters in Kabul. I had been to Afghanistan two years earlier, and concluded then the Afghan War wasn’t going as advertised. I wanted to see what progress had been made with the surge. Had the Taliban been turned back? Were Afghan security forces and police getting trained quickly enough for the turnover in 2014?
We discussed speculation that he would soon be named Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman or head of the CIA. He said he wasn’t running for president and didn’t care about making a lot of money outside of government. He said what was important to him was finishing the job. He acknowledged the ground war was winding down, and going forward the war would be fought with special operations forces and drones. He would be interested in just two jobs, implying that those were the Chairman of the JCS and head of the CIA. He said the CIA job would allow him to continue that fight. I repeated gossip I had heard from political and military folks that if he were offered and took the CIA job, it would take him out of the political picture for the next several years, and probably remove him as a future presidential candidate.
As we were finishing the interview I told General Petraeus my boss, Roger Ailes, was a great admirer. General Petraeus, who knows Roger, interrupted to say, basically, Roger is a brilliant guy. He knows I’m not running for anything.
My comment was prompted by a conversation I had had with Roger before leaving for Afghanistan. We discussed many topics, most involving national security. On my way out, I casually told him, I’ll give the general your regards, shall I? Roger smiled and replied something to the effect of, tell him if they don’t make him chairman of the joint chiefs, he ought to jump into the presidential race to stir things up. I know now that Roger was joking, but at the time, I wasn’t sure.
Today, I’m bewildered by the reaction of the press to Bob Woodward’s story in the Washington Post. Though Bob is in possession of a secretly recorded tape of my conversation with the general, he was way off base to characterize it as a serious attempt to get him to run, or to give him political advice.
Petraeus and I were having fun. Having just told me definitively that he wouldn’t run, he suggested that maybe Ailes could run this non-existent campaign. It was not a serious conversation plotting General Petraeus’ political future; it was the kind of idle speculation that happens in every campaign season. That’s why they call it the silly season. I knew he was serious about not wanting to run, and he knew I wasn’t serious in pressing it.
I realize conspiracy theorists have used this off-the-record interview to claim it was some plot to put Petraeus in the Oval Office. But it was little more than one defense analyst (me) trading some political gossip and laughs with one of the country’s most important military leaders (Petraeus).
Perhaps those same conspiracy theorists should ask themselves some different questions: Why was an audiotape created of what was supposed to be an off-the-record interview with just four people in the room, which General Petraeus himself said several times was off the record? I certainly saw no recording device, nor did I give my permission for the interview to be taped. So who taped the interview? Why did they keep it hidden away for the past 18 months? Why was it released at this time to a Washington Post reporter? That is surely more interesting than two people, neither of them politicians, joking around about the presidential campaign. Indeed, this is why they call it the silly season.