The Curious(ly unending) Case of David Petraeus

CIA Director David Petraeus resigned in early November 2012, after a sexual affair with his would-be biographer Paula Broadwell came to light in the middle of the controversy over the Benghazi attack. The FBI, unbeknownst to Congress until  later, had already opened an investigation of the sitting CIA Director over the affair, which resulted in the discovery that Broadwell had classified material on her computer — a probe of which Senate Intelligence chair Dianne Feinstein said Congress should have been made aware by the Department of Justice. Petraeus denied giving the documents to Broadwell, but the probe continued after Petraeus’ resignation.

In fact, it’s still not complete, Eli Lake and Josh Rogin reported this week for Bloomberg, despite more than two years and the apparent cooperation of the principals in the investigation. And people on Capitol Hill are demanding to know why:

According to current and former U.S. intelligence officials who have spoken to us, the FBI still has an open investigation into whether Petraeus improperly provided highly classified documents to Paula Broadwell, his biographer and the woman with whom he had an affair.

A little history: In the spring of 2012, the Federal Bureau of Investigation stumbled upon the Petraeus-Broadwell relationship while investigating a separate cyber-stalking matter. While the FBI has cleared Broadwell of those charges, and Obama has said Petraeus never endangered national security, the FBI’s probe remains open. …

“All of us who know him and are close to him are mystified by the fact there is still this investigation into him,” Jack Keane, a retired four-star U.S. Army General said in an interview.  Keane has been both an adviser to and mentor of Petraeus since he saved Petraeus’s life during a live-fire training exercise in 1991.

Keane questions whether the Petraeus FBI probe lasting this long may be driven by something other than a desire to investigate a potential crime. “It makes you wonder if there is another motivation to drag an investigation out this long,” he said.

Lake and Rogin point out that the effect of this probe has been to sideline Petraeus in the public debate over Barack Obama’s national-security policies. Petraeus’ experience in Iraq would be especially helpful, now that his hard-won victory in western Iraq through the “surge”/Anbar Awakening strategy has been thrown away by Obama’s insistence on a full withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, over the objections of both Robert Gates and Leon Panetta.

This week, John McCain demanded in a letter to Eric Holder that the Department of Justice either fish or cut bait:

This a circumstance in which the principle ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ is certainly in play,” McCain scolded Holder. “The fact that you and others within your department have weighed in publicly on the case raises questions about whether this investigation is being handled in a fundamentally fair and appropriate manner.”

Considering the threats emerging in a region where Petraeus’ expertise could help inform better policy responses, McCain adds, “Congress and the American people cannot afford to have this voice silenced or curtailed by the shadow of a long-running, unresolved investigation marked by leaks from anonymous sources.”

Earlier this week, I spoke to former House Intelligence chair Pete Hoekstra about the Petraeus probe. Hoekstra says that this is a straightforward case, and the inexplicable delay in resolving it leads to speculation about motives, as I share in my column for The Fiscal Times:

“It’s not a complicated case,” Hoekstra said, noting that it had no connection to espionage or other malicious intent. “Why would they be keeping it open? And the speculation swirls around [that] the best way to keep David Petraeus quiet, if he has any criticism of the Obama administration, is to have this hanging out over David’s head, knowing that at any given time, anything he says can and will be held against him.” It looks like the case is being held open “for political reasons,” Hoekstra said, “and not legal reasons.”

Chaffetz said much the same to Lake and Rogin. After noting that Petraeus has had little to offer in public comments except for a handful of supporting remarks for Obama’s policies, Chaffetz responded, “When the president has the ability to charge him with crimes, maybe it affects your perspective.”

This administration has already had its feckless security policies pilloried by other former members of Obama’s team. Defense Secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta – Petraeus’ predecessor at CIA – published highly critical memoirs of their time on President Obama’s national security team.

Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel might be next, especially after becoming the target of anonymously sourced attacks from the White House on his competence. The White House probably would prefer to have Petraeus keep his thoughts to himself until 2017 at the earliest, especially given his credibility on military and intelligence affairs.

That, however, is the problem — whether the delay in concluding the investigation is deliberate or just another example of incompetence in this administration. The collapse of the national security and foreign policy strategies of this administration makes Petraeus’ experience more valuable than ever. If Petraeus broke the law, the Department of Justice has had plenty of time to make that case, and so far hasn’t even bothered to try.

If Petraeus committed a crime, then charge him. He should have no special immunity for violations of security regulations, just the same as Sandy Berger didn’t get off the hook for stealing documents from the National Archives. But if the DoJ hasn’t found grounds yet to charge him after more than two years of looking, then they should pack it in and quit dragging this out, even if the reason for the delay is nothing more than bureaucratic drag and incompetence.