Update: Defense Secretary Ash Carter opted against taking any further action against David Petraeus, according to reports published Saturday

Defense Secretary Ash Carter faces no easy options regarding Gen. David Petraeus.

If Carter decides to demote the famous war commander down to a three-star status — which top aides say he is considering — the secretary risks angering the military's most senior officers, who will see the move as politically motivated. Yet if the secretary does nothing, he will fuel frustration among the rank-and-file troops who think their higher-ups get a pass on disciplinary matters that would draw harsh punishments for most anyone else.

"I expect these considerations are weighing heavily on Secretary Carter's deliberations," said Paul Pillar, a national security expert with the Brookings Institute.

"If [Carter] treats Petraeus lightly, then you know there is going to be flood of commentary the next day about how the person who is lower gets hit hard but if you are senior enough and famous enough then he gets a slap on the wrist," Pillar said. However, he added, "the idea of 'making an example of someone,' that really makes me wince. That raises issues of fundamental fairness."

Petraeus' one-time star power — the gifted military strategist who became President Obama's choice to lead the CIA — had many thinking he'd make a run at the White House. But that unraveled long before he pleaded guilty last April to a misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified information, the greatest fallout to date from the general's embarrassing extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. Petraeus resigned from the CIA in 2012, soon after the allegations against him surfaced.

Now, although the Army recommended no further punitive action be taken against Petraeus, Carter is contemplating whether the retired former top war commander should retain the status and pension of a retired four-star officer. The loss of even one star could reduce the general's retirement pay by $40,000 a year.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter

Photo Credit: Jacquelyn Martin/AP

The Defense Department has the authority to revisit an retired officer’s final pay grade determination if new evidence of misconduct is revealed. Carter is said to be examining material provided to him by the Army along with documents related to the FBI's investigation, which focused at least in part on several notebooks he provided to Broadwell. Those journals contained a trove of classified information, including names of covert agents and notes from Petraeus’ meetings with White House officials.

"Once [Carter] has an opportunity to consider this information, he will make his decision about next steps, if any, in this matter," Peter Cook, a Defense Department spokesman, told Military Times.

Petraeus did not respond to a request for comment.

During an interview with Military Times this past September, Broadwell declined to discuss her relationship with Petraeus and the fallout it caused. She cited ongoing legal issues related to the scandal.

Last April, Petraeus pleaded guilty in federal court to a misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified information. He shared his personnel notebooks with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, with whom he was also having an extramarital affair. The notebooks contained a trove of classified information, including names of covert agents and notes from Petraeus' meetings with White House officials.

Those revelations also forced him to resign as director of the Central Intelligence Agency in 2012.

Petraeus has many defenders who point out that Broadwell had a security clearance when she received his notebooks. No classified information appeared in the book she ultimately published in 2012, "All In: The Education of General David Petraeus." The general was on terminal leave from the military at the time he shared that information with her in 2011.

Still, he is arguably the most prominent commander of his generation, overseeing the Iraq war's "surge" in 2007 and 2008. He later served as the top American general in Afghanistan, directing the 2010 surge there. Some in the Pentagon suggest that with such stature comes the expectation Petraeus should be held to the highest standard.

"Every time you're promoted after that first O-5 command, it becomes a little more important that actions and words are aligned in every way," said Rear Adm. Margaret "Peg" Klein, the defense secretary's senior adviser for military professionalism. The military's O-5 pay grade refers to lieutenants colonel in the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps, and commanders in the Navy. It's the rank at which officers are put in charge of large units numbering several hundreds troops.

Klein helps advise Carter on matters related to ethics and misconduct in the ranks but said she has played no direct role in the Petraeus review. Klein's office was created in 2014 amid concerns about a spate of scandals involving senior military officers.

"As we look across the officer, enlisted and civilian ranks," she told Military Times in a recent interview, "I think each are treated fairly. I think there are slightly different expectations for all of them, and I think those different expectations are taken into account when punishments are handed out."

Carter is under growing public pressure from at least two influential lawmakers — Sen. John McCain and Sen. Jack Reed — to drop the matter entirely.

Privately, the secretary is likely facing internal pressure from the military's senior officers. "There's a circle-the-wagons mentality" among the general and flag officers, said Dan Grazier, a former Marine Corps officer who is now a military expert with the Project on Government Oversight in Washington.

Any disciplinary measure Carter takes will have a far-reaching cultural impact across the officer corps, especially among the rising generation of military leaders who are potential candidates to become generals or admirals at the ranks of O-5 and O-6.

"It would just reinforce their belief that they're going to be mercilessly gutted for any high-profile mistake. And that might make them more risk averse. We talk about not having a zero-defect mentality and, unfortunately, that might be exactly what this is creating," said Butch Bracknell, a retired Marine officer and member of the Truman National Security Project in Washington.

Carter may be facing pressure, too, from the law enforcement community. Some civilian prosecutors wanted to charge Petraeus with lying to the FBI because the general initially denied giving Broadwell access to classified information, according to reports.

A felony conviction could have resulted in jail time for the general, a fate that some in the Justice Department deemed appropriate. But as a recent Washington Post report reveals, Petraeus' lawyers fought aggressively — and successfully, by and large — to protect what they could of his reputation. Dissatisfied with the plea agreement, "there is some pressure now," said Larry Korb, a military expert with the Center for American Progress, ... probably from people in the FBI and [Department of] Justice who felt that Petraeus didn’t get what he deserved."

Defense Department officials say there is no hard timeline for Carter to make a decision. Ultimately, he may choose to do nothing, effectively endorsing the Army's decision.

However, he can find plenty of examples showing that lower-ranking troops face stiff punishment for mishandling classified information. Grazier pointed to Navy Logistics Specialist 1st Class Dan Layug, a Navy logistics specialist who admitted to giving a Singapore-based businessman classified information about U.S. ship schedules. In exchange, the businessman gave the sailor cash, video games and hotel rooms, prosecutors say.  

The Navy responded by giving Layug a dishonorable discharge and stripping him of his military benefits. A federal judge sentenced Layug to more than two years in prison for the same violation.

"It would send a great message if he did take a star away from Petraeus," Grazier said of Carter. Nevertheless, "I'm sure that Secretary Carter is being advised being by all sorts of people around him, especially general officers, not to do that."

Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.

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