Petraeus scandal: Where will investigations take Congress?

As House and Senate intelligence leaders prepare to query top FBI and CIA officials on the Petraeus scandal, questions abound: Why did Obama not know sooner? Did the affair impact Libya? Was there a security breach? 

Amu Scherzer/The Tampa Bay Times/AP
In this 2010 photo, Natalie Khawam, left, Gen. David Petraeus, Scott and Jill Kelley, and Holly Petraeus watch the Gasparilla parade from the Kelley's front lawn in Tampa, Fla.

Conspiracy theorists are offering all kinds of dark and convoluted guesses for why President Obama was not informed of the extramarital affair that brought down former CIA director David Petraeus until two days after the Nov. 6 elections.

But in the end the explanation may lead back to Watergate, and steps taken after the 1970s scandal to build a protective wall between the Justice Department criminal investigations and the White House.

Congress is likely to be reminded of that wall as it probes the national security ramifications of the Petraeus scandal with a series of closed-door hearings this week.

On Thursday, the Senate and House intelligence committees will meet with the acting CIA director, Michael Morell, and the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, to try to clarify any link between General Petraeus’s actions and the CIA response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.

In particular, Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D) of California says she wants to know what Petraeus learned from a trip he took to Libya in late October.

But first on Wednesday, House intelligence leaders will sit down with the FBI’s deputy director, Sean Joyce, and Mr. Morell to try to answer some of the basic questions left unanswered in the wake of Petraeus’s resignation. The celebrated four-star general stepped down last Friday after an FBI investigation into a case of cyberharassment led to evidence of the spy chief’s affair with a former military intelligence officer who was also his biographer.

The House intelligence leaders want to know who knew what when, and in particular why it took so long for investigators to inform the White House and congressional leaders of a matter involving the CIA director with possible national security implications.

The FBI is said to be establishing a timeline to present to members of Congress. To explain why a probe that is said to have begun in May as a criminal investigation did not come to Mr. Obama’s attention until Nov. 8, FBI officials are likely to cite policies dating from the 1970s that prohibit the Bureau from sharing such information with the White House.

According to those policies, the FBI, as part of the Justice Department, is not supposed to share information about its criminal investigations with the White House. The FBI began its investigation into possible criminal activities after a woman, now identified as Jill Kelley, a family friend of David Petraeus and his wife Holly, reported receiving threatening e-mails.

The investigation revealed that the e-mails were from Paula Broadwell, who was subsequently identified as the woman carrying on an affair with Petraeus.

One problem with the “Watergate” explanation for why the FBI did not take what it discovered to the White House and intelligence leaders in Congress is that it conflicts with another requirement of federal law, which is that the executive branch keep Congress’s intelligence committees informed about important intelligence activities.

The National Security Act of 1947 stipulates that the president “shall ensure that the congressional intelligence committees are kept fully and currently informed on the intelligence activities of the United States.”

Justification for not informing the White House – and in turn, Congress – may come down to a determination the FBI apparently made, perhaps by late summer, that the Petraeus affair had not compromised national security.

According to some FBI officials speaking on condition of anonymity with some journalists, the FBI determined quickly in the course of its investigation that it was dealing with a criminal and not a national security matter.

But congressional intelligence leaders, in their Wednesday meeting, are likely to press for information on the nature of the trail of e-mails between Petraeus and Ms. Broadwell and for any signs of a security breach within them.

The nation’s intelligence chief having an affair would seem to qualify as an “operationally sensitive matter,” Senator Feinstein says, adding mthat traditionally congressional intelligence leaders have been kept informed of such issues.

Feinstein has also emphasized the need to probe any national security breaches stemming from the affair. She cited information concerning the CIA’s role in Benghazi at the time of the attack that Broadwell disclosed to an audience she was speaking to in Denver in late October.

“I do not know how she got that information,” Feinstein told NBC Monday, “we should find out.”

Feinstein also planned to gather her committee members Tuesday afternoon to discuss how the committee would proceed concerning the FBI investigation of Petraeus and Broadwell.

Another matter that congressional intelligence leaders are likely to want explained is why the House majority leader, Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia, learned about the Petraeus affair before other members of Congress – and before the president.

Aides to Congressman Cantor say an FBI employee who was concerned that the Petraeus investigation was being swept under the rug contacted their office, which led to Cantor being informed of the affair on Oct. 27 – almost two weeks before Obama would find out.

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