Hillary Clinton plans to step down from her post as secretary of state. Leon Panetta may do the same at the Pentagon. Amid the coming changes in the national security team around President Obama, David Petraeus would remain as the CIA director, bringing continuity to the start of a second term. Now that thinking has been turned on its head, Petraeus exiting abruptly late last week following revelations of an affair.
Hard to overstate all that the retired general brought to the table. His many contacts across the world are well known. They are particularly extensive in the Middle East, in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he ably led the American military missions, remaking the concept of counterinsurgency. His perspectives promised to be most valuable as the president weighed decisions about what next in Iran, Syria and Pakistan.
More, as attention turned to what happened in Benghazi, four Americans dying in an attack on the American consulate, Petraeus appeared positioned to bring a respected voice, cooling partisan passions, having the confidence of Democrats and Republicans. It is reasonable to expect that Petraeus still will contribute to the discussion, at congressional hearings no less. Missing will be his strategic thinking, his daily pushing for the CIA and others in national security to improve.
The question of why Petraeus would put so much at risk may be the most puzzling of the series surrounding this episode. Over the weekend, congressional leaders were quick to express dismay about the FBI failing to alert them to the investigation involving the CIA director. No question, the potential for a national security breach existed. At the same time, the bureau had an obligation to tread carefully, privacy concerns also in play.
Each day brings new bits of information, and much speculation, about events that started as an investigation into “harassing” email messages. FBI agents stumbled onto Petraeus after examining the email account of Paula Broadwell, the author of a book about the general and the woman with whom he had the affair. The bureau had reason to assess whether national security was compromised, or a crime committed. Did it really have an obligation to tell members of the congressional intelligence committees about the investigation before reaching solid conclusions about what happened?
The timing of the Petraeus departure is curious, just days after the election. Intriguing, too, is the role of Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, tipped off about the investigation by a frustrated FBI agent. Was politics at work? This is Washington. Of greater concern is the policy. David Petraeus hardly is irreplaceable. Yet the timing of his departure is unfortunate, his formidable knowledge and skills well placed for the moment.