TAMPA — Retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni spent most of his time traveling outside Tampa when he served as chief of U.S. Central Command from 1997 to 2000.
He actually tallied it up when he left CentCom, which is headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base.
"I was gone more than 70 percent of the time," Zinni said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times Friday. "And of course I didn't have the same crisis situations CentCom's been dealing with for the last 12 years."
So when Zinni heard news reports that Gen. John Allen, a former deputy and acting commander at CentCom, may have exchanged hundreds, perhaps even thousands of emails with Tampa socialite Jill Kelley, Zinni was amazed.
"I don't know where the time came to do all of that," Zinni said. "It's a full-time job."
In a telephone interview from his home in Virginia, Zinni said he worried the sex scandal that has engulfed Allen and just-resigned CIA director David Petraeus will harm the military's reputation. He said he was very careful when he served at MacDill to adequately vet invitations to social events and personal meetings with civilians to avoid entanglements like the one that now threatens Allen's career and ended Petraeus'.
Zinni said his staff judge advocate — an office providing legal and policy support to a military commander — screened many of the invitations and meetings that came into his office.
Speaking of Kelley's socializing with MacDill brass, Zinni said, "That's something my staff judge advocate would have been on in a heartbeat."
That isn't to say, he said, that commanders at military bases should avoid contact with the surrounding community. Zinni said local ties benefit both civilians and the military. Military personnel live locally. Everybody has a stake in maintaining good relations, he said.
But top commanders need to proceed cautiously when reaching out, Zinni said.
He said his biggest concern is that the sex scandal will harm the military's reputation. "It chips away at respect," Zinni said.
Zinni, however, said he is withholding judgment until the facts are know. He said he admires and respects both Petraeus and Allen. And he called Allen one of the finest generals in the nation.
Zinni said civilians who love the military often try to get too close and, even though they may have good intentions, they can cause difficulties.
"Sometimes it's hard for them to understand that what they're doing might be inappropriate," Zinni said.
Acknowledging that some of the more aggressive civilians sometimes act like groupies at a Rolling Stones concert, Zinni said with a laugh, "It never happened to me."