CIA Director David Petraeus abruptly resigned Friday, citing an extramarital affair and the need to sort out the “personal and professional issues” involved.
The former commander of forces in Iraq and Afghanistan had built a stellar and nearly unassailable reputation – but mounting criticism of the Central Intelligence Agency’s response to the Benghazi, Libya, terrorist attack in September was beginning to tarnish that reputation.
Word of Mr. Petraeus’s resignation sent ripples of stunned surprise through both the intelligence and military communities, raising questions that revolved around how long the affair had been going on and how an officer known for his rigorous self-discipline – and attention to his reputation within the media — could have made such a lapse in judgment.
In a letter of resignation accepted by the White House, Petraeus said he had been married 37 years but had exercised “very poor judgment” in choosing to enter into an extramarital affair.
Petraeus, who was widely celebrated as a military commander and even occasionally mentioned as a potential presidential candidate, was sworn in as head of the CIA in September 2011 – and had kept a low profile since. Now speculation is sure to proliferate over whether that low profile resulted from Petraeus focusing on America’s intelligence gathering or on personal matters.
In particular, members of Congress and other officials demanding answers about the Benghazi attack on the US consulate that resulted in the deaths of four Americans – including the US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stephens, and two CIA agents – will want to know if there was any link between Petraeus’s extramarital activities and what has been increasingly criticized as the CIA’s weak performance on the night of the Benghazi attack.
More broadly, the reason for Petraeus’s departure will raise questions about any compromising of US covert operations and intelligence. The potential for blackmail of intelligence officers is always a concern about the spy corps, but the involvement of the nation’s top spy in an extramarital affair takes the concern to a new level.
In the weeks since the Benghazi attack, officials have leaked information, including how Petraeus kept information on the CIA’s role in Benghazi so private that even Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was left to call Petraeus as the attack unfolded to try to get intelligence information from him.
Last week, CIA officials revealed that in fact, the intelligence agency’s operations in Benghazi dwarfed diplomatic operations at the consulate and that the CIA maintained what was described as an “annex,” about a mile from the diplomatic mission.
State Department officials have said there was an informal understanding that the annex and its agents would come to the assistance of the consulate (which had private contractors providing security) if a need arose. CIA officials insist their agents responded to the consulate’s distress calls within a half-hour.
In a statement released Friday afternoon, President Obama praised Petraeus for his “extraordinary service” to the country, adding, “By any measure, through his lifetime of service, David Petraeus has made our country safer and stronger.”
In a statement, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona highlighted Petraeus’s role in Iraq, saying that his “inspirational leadership and his genius were directly responsible – after years of failure – for the success of the surge in Iraq.”
But Petraeus’s success in Iraq and Afghanistan was a result to a certain extent of his focus on a counterinsurgency strategy that involved large numbers of troops fighting the enemy by incorporating nation-building into the battle. When Mr. Obama named Petraeus to head the CIA, it was widely interpreted as the president’s signal that he intended to wind down America’s wars and shift from a counterinsurgency strategy to counterterrorism.
Obama did not cite Petraeus’s reason for resigning but did say, “Going forward, my thoughts and prayers are with Dave and Holly Petraeus, who has done so much to help military families through her own work. I wish them the very best at this difficult time.”
Mrs. Petraeus is the assistant director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, where she supports veterans and troops facing difficulties as a result of the financial crisis.
Obama initially tried to convince Petraeus not to resign, according to some souces. “I am told that President Obama tried to talk Petraeus out of resigning, but Petraeus took the samurai route and insisted that he had done a dishonorable thing and now had to try to balance it by doing the honorable thing and stepping down as CIA director,” Tom Ricks reports in his blog “The Best Defense.”
Such a move is in keeping with the military culture in which Petraeus rose to the rank of four-star general.
Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, adultery is a punishable offense for soldiers if the conduct is shown to be detrimental “to good order and discipline in the armed forces or was of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces.”
Obama said that Michael Morell, deputy director of the CIA, would take over as acting director. Mr. Morell served briefly as acting director after Leon Panetta left the agency last year to become Defense secretary.
Petraeus was set to testify Thursday at a closed-door session of the Senate Intelligence Committee on the Benghazi attack, but it was unclear if his resignation would alter that schedule.
“I would have stood up for him,” she said. “I wanted him to continue. He was good, he loved the work, and he had a command of intelligence issues second to none.”
Obama, after winning reelection Tuesday, was already expected to make some changes in his national security team for a second term, but early speculation had been that Petraeus would stay on at the CIA. Now the job of spy chief will be added to the new-team mix.