BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — The curious affair of the general and the biographer has all of the elements of a blockbuster movie. There’s sex, lies, national security, and a possible cover-up — just the sort of thing to bring down governments and keep the media salivating for weeks, even months, to come.
So far the buck has stopped well short of newly re-elected President Barack Obama. But as he prepares for his first post-election news conference at 1:30 p.m. today, the prospect of a major political scandal must be weighing heavily on his mind.
White House officials say the president learned of Petraeus’ extramarital relationship with Paula Broadwell only on Thursday, two days after Obama won a hotly contested race by a comfortable, although hardly generous, margin. Petraeus stepped down as head of the Central Intelligence Agency on Friday, after only 15 months in the post.
The timing of the revelations was fortuitous; given the bitter and divisive campaign that preceded the Nov. 6 ballot, the Petraeus scandal could have substantially altered the dynamics of the race.
But even now, with the president engaged in delicate negotiations with Congress on the budget deadline — the so-called “fiscal cliff” — the Petraeus morass is an unwelcome distraction, and could soon prove to be a full-blown disaster for an administration struggling to heal the wounds of the long election battle.
Republicans like New York Rep. Peter King, chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, are calling it “a crisis of major proportions.” King indicated that the FBI was “derelict in its duty” by not telling the president immediately that the investigation was under way.
Others, such as Jane Harman, former congresswoman and current head of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC, explain that the practice is to isolate such investigations to prevent possible interference from the executive branch.
The most troubling accusations involve the attack on the US Consulate and a nearby annex in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11. Four Americans were killed in the mayhem, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. The Republicans had made Benghazi, and the administration response to the violence, a centerpiece of their campaign.
At issue is whether Broadwell, who wrote a fawning biography of Petraeus called “All In,” was given access to classified information in the course of her research. In a speech she gave at the University of Denver in late October, Broadwell said the reason for the attack was the presence of detained Libyan fighters in the annex. What’s more, she said that Petraeus knew all about it.
“Now, I don’t know if a lot of you heard this, but the CIA annex had actually, um, had taken a couple of Libyan militia members prisoner and they think that the attack on the consulate was an effort to try to get these prisoners back,” said Broadwell.
“The challenging thing for General Petraeus is that in his new position, he’s not allowed to communicate with the press. So he’s known all of this — they had correspondence with the CIA station chief in, in Libya. Within 24 hours they kind of knew what was happening.”
The CIA is flatly denying Broadwell’s version of events, but the damage has been done.
On Monday, the FBI searched Broadwell’s Charlotte, NC home, taking boxes of documents and computers away in an operation recorded at every step by the press. Sources say that classified information has been found among the material.
Now questions are surfacing about who knew what, when. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told Fox News on Sunday that the Senate should have been told earlier. She also indicated that Petraeus’ resignation would not keep him from testifying at Senate hearings on Libya, the first of which is scheduled for Thursday.
Petraeus, who retired from the military to run the CIA, is a highly decorated general who was rumored to have presidential ambitions. He is hailed as the hero of the Iraq war, widely credited with turning the tide of that ugly conflict with a well-timed and well-managed surge. He later took an effective demotion, leaving his job as head of Central Command to become the head of NATO forces in Afghanistan, following the forced resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal in June 2010.
At the time, rumors flew that Petraeus had been promised a high-level post in return for his sacrifice, and in September 2011, Obama made him head of the CIA. Just two months after assuming that role, Petraeus allegedly began his affair with Broadwell.
The affair came to light in a bizarre string of events that have brought into question the Big Brother society of the United States in a post-9/11 world.
The players are by now infamous. Tampa socialite Jill Kelley, who has a history of exploiting her friendships with the powerful, reported a string of what she said were harassing emails to an acquaintance in the FBI. He, in turn, began an investigation that led to Broadwell and eventually to Petraeus. Their email communications revealed the affair, and the rest, as they say, is history.
But the ripples have engulfed another four-star general, John Allen, who succeeded Petraeus as NATO commander in Afghanistan. He is now accused of an inappropriate relationship with Kelley, based on tens of thousands of pages of emails that are still being combed through. In the meantime, Allen’s nomination to become supreme allied commander of NATO forces in Europe is on hold.
Kelley, nee Khawam, was born in Lebanon to Maronite Christian parents, a fact that will doubtless spur even more conspiracy theories.
The mess has already spawned more than its share of off-color humor.
Archconservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh, during his bilious program on Fox News radio on Monday, gave this priceless tidbit:
“There seem to be too many generals taking orders from their privates,” he said.