The mighty has fallen, yet again. This time it’s General David Petraeus. And email, again, is the tool that did him in.
I’ve written before about the bulletin board rule: Don’t put anything into an email that you wouldn’t put on a bulletin board for anyone to read. Inevitably and at the worst possible time, the most private of messages are the ones that become public.
Petraeus’ case illuminates two corollary rules to the bulletin board rule.
Corollary #1: Trying to hide your emails doesn’t work. Petraeus and his lover, Paula Broadwell, understood that their emails were potentially damaging so instead they tried to make it impossible for anyone to find them by not actually sending them. In its November 19 online edition The Telegraph explained what Petraeus and Broadwell did. In short they set up a Gmail account which they both could access. They wrote their salacious emails as drafts, and saved them to the draft folder. Then the partner could open the same email account, read the draft, and believe it was safe from discovery because the email had never been sent. They knew what they were writing was something they never wanted to be read by anyone else.
Corollary #2: You can’t control what other people might do. In a pique of jealousy, Broadwell took it upon herself to send some anonymous “cat-fight stuff” emails to Jill Kelley, a Florida socialite who was an unpaid social liaison at MacDill Air Force Base and a perceived rival for Petraeus. Kelley didn’t like those emails, so she contacted an FBI friend and asked him to look into who was sending them. It didn’t take the FBI long to identify Broadwell and find the Petraeus emails as well.
End result: Everybody gets outed, Petraeus resigns, and the USA loses a person who is eminently qualified for his position.
Email: It’s great for communicating the who, what, when, and where—just the public facts. But for anything truly private, find another way to send your message—using your secret decoder ring. Even the head of the CIA couldn’t keep his private emails private.
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About the author
Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers' questions in The Boston Sunday Globe's weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. Post is the co-author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business" and conducts business etiquette seminars across the country. In October 2003 his book "Essential Manners For Men" was released and quickly became a New York Times best seller. He is also the author of "Essential Manners for Couples," "Playing Through–A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf," and co-author of "A Wedding Like No Other." Post is Emily Post's great-grandson. His media appearances include "CBS Sunday Morning," CBS's "The Early Show," NBC's "Today," ABC's "Good Morning America," and "Fox News."