Military legal experts say Democrat North Carolina Senate candidate Army Reserve Lt. Col. Cal Cunningham’s recently-disclosed extramarital affair with a veteran’s wife poses a huge security risk because of the potential for blackmail.
Experts say that foreign intelligence services spend a lot of their time looking for compromising material on U.S. service members in hopes of being able to blackmail them for information, and Cunningham’s previously-secret extramarital affair would have put him at high risk.
Attorney and Army veteran Tod Leaven told the Citizen-Times in an interview this week that the Uniform Code of Military Justice’s (UCMJ) ban on adultery is meant to guard against service members being potentially blackmailed.
“Affairs are so sensitive, and people do really, really stupid stuff to try to hide an affair and that could just jeopardize a unit,” he told the paper.
A retired Special Operations Command colonel who wished to speak on background said that it was not the affair itself that put him at risk but the act of hiding it.
“The problem is hiding it makes you a security risk, because you’re subject to blackmail. Hostile intelligence services dream of finding a guy like this,” the retired colonel said.
“They dream of finding a guy who’s hiding an illicit affair like that, because he can be kicked out of the Army and lose everything, or he can cooperate with them and they’ll give him money…so it makes him a massive security risk,” the retired colonel added.
Last week, NationalFile.com published text messages Cunningham, a 47-year-old married father of two, sent to a married public relations executive named Arlene Guzman Todd, 36. The text messages were sexual in nature, and since their disclosure, she has confirmed to the Associated Press that they engaged in an extramarital affair at Cunningham’s family home.
Cunningham is running for North Carolina’s U.S. Senate seat against incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC). Cunningham has made his military service and devotion to his family key components of his campaign.
For now, Cunningham is insisting on staying in the race to become a U.S. senator despite reports of more damaging information to come.
The U.S. Army Reserve confirmed Wednesday it is investigating Cunningham, and it is not clear what else may be found or what else he may have kept hidden.
Cunningham is no ordinary military reservist — he is a senior military lawyer who serves in the Army Reserve’s 134th Legal Operations Detachment at Fort Bragg, which is home to the Army’s elite special operations units.
From 2016 to 2019, Cunningham served as the deputy staff judge advocate at the school house where the Army’s elite Special Forces are trained, known as the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School (SWCS), according to his campaign website.
His access to Fort Bragg and special operations forces would make him an enticing target by foreign adversaries.
“He was the deputy staff judge advocate at SWCC, right? So that’s a pretty important position and he likely had access to a lot of special operations compartmentalized programs. If he did, he’s an absolute prime target for them,” the retired SOCOM colonel said.
The U.S. military has also put a lot of effort in recent years in trying to warn service members to avoid situations where they could be compromised by “sextortion.”
Katherine McDonald, an intelligence specialist with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, told the Military Times in 2016, “The concern really is twofold: the concern of harm to themselves and, on a national security level, a lot of these service members do have [security] clearances.”
Indeed, Guzman Todd indicated she herself had compromising material on Cunningham and even threatened to use it.
“I’m just going to send to his opponent his naked photos,” she wrote in text messages obtained by the Associated Press. “That will teach him.”
She added in another message to her friend, “He knows [that I] can tank his campaign.”
Some legal experts say that as a reservist, Cunningham would only be subject to the UCMJ if he were on duty at the time of the adultery.
However, as a military judge advocate general (JAG), he may fall under additional professional standards, regardless of whether he was on duty or off-duty at the time.
Leaven said that for military officers, having an affair is “an absolute career killer.” He said that while court-martials for adultery are not common, service members who commit adultery can face less-than-honorable discharges from the military.
The retired colonel said Cunningham could also lose his security clearance for not disclosing his affair.
It is also heavily frowned upon in the military for a senior officer to engage in an affair with an enlisted soldier’s wife.
There is indication that Cunningham and Guzman Todd’s husband served at Fort Bragg at the same time and may even have known each other.
Her husband, Jeremy Todd, has served five combat deployments and a stint at Fort Bragg before being wounded in a training accident and becoming a University of Southern California (USC) graduate student, according to an article published on USC’s website in 2016.
According to the article, Todd served as the senior religious top enlisted officer for all of Army Special Forces Command (Airborne) at Fort Bragg between 2010 and 2016.
Cunningham’s campaign website states that Cunningham served at 1st Special Forces Command (Airborne) at Fort Bragg as a Reserve Augmentee from 2009 to 2012.
One of Cunningham’s text messages to Guzman Todd indicated that he had known her for awhile.
“Happy belated birthday,” Cunningham wrote in a text to Guzman Todd about her son. “Cannot believe he’s 8 years old!!! He was so little when we met!”
Leaven, who said he knows Cunningham and still supports him in the Senate race, said he was dismayed by his actions, especially given the fact that Cunningham was a military prosecutor.
“He should know military law better than anyone else,” he told the Citizen-Times. “If there’s an expert on the [UCMJ], it should be Cal. And knowing it, he still decided to take the risk, and that’s on him.”