Clarence Page: Why spotlight Petraeus?

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Past CIA officers have been known to withhold information about questionable activities so presidents will have “plausible deniability.” In the matter of retired Gen. David Petraeus’ career-killing extramarital affair, President Barack Obama is stuck with a deniable plausibility.

It is plausible that the FBI kept the president in the dark about the FBI investigation that turned up his CIA director’s extramarital affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell. Privacy, among other concerns, needs to be protected early in investigations.

Yet, it also is suspiciously coincidental that the sad scandal, for which Petraeus resigned, came to public light a mere two days after Obama’s re-election — a campaign in which the CIA’s role in Benghazi, Libya, was a big right-wing talking point.

The predictable baying hounds of partisan Obama-bashing are joined in this instance by such skeptical Democrats as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. She’s miffed that Congress was not put in the loop earlier about the FBI’s probe into the then-CIA director’s relationship.

But before we get to the classic Watergate-era question — “What did the president know and when did he know it?” — I have a more fundamental question in mind: Why did this hot story have to become public at all?

The probe that led to Petraeus’ sudden exit began, according to news accounts, with a complaint several months ago by Jill Kelley, a Tampa woman known for throwing parties with her husband for military personnel at nearby MacDill Air Force Base. Kelley reportedly complained to the FBI about “harassing” e-mails that the FBI traced back to Paula Broadwell, Petraeus’ biographer.

The e-mails revealed evidence of an intimate extramarital relationship, according to media accounts, but after months of investigation, the FBI found that neither the retired general nor Broadwell had broken any laws.

So, if the FBI concluded there was no criminal case, why was this matter brought to public attention? If there was no evidence of a crime, why would the president have to be told?

According to the New York Times account, the FBI investigators confronted Petraeus about two weeks before Election Day and concluded that there were no breaches of national security or other crimes.

Yet, Petraeus did not offer his resignation at once. He undoubtedly knew that his resignation and the CIA’s intelligence failures would zoom to the top of everybody’s talking points in a close election campaign and superheated media atmosphere.

He did not intend to resign, the Washington Post reported recently, quoting “two longtime military aides to Petraeus,” until it became clear that his affair was about to become public.

Sometime near the end of October, an unidentified FBI employee reportedly took the matter into his own hands and told two congressional Republicans, Rep. Dave Reichert of Washington state and later House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who said in a statement that the employee “was concerned that sensitive, classified information might have been compromised.”

But there were no details as to what the informant was trying to expose or whether he might have had political motives.

Cantor said he turned over the information to FBI Director Robert Mueller, who I would hope already was aware of what his underlings had discovered. But did the president need to know, too?

Yes, says Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican who says that the FBI had “an absolute obligation to tell the president,” once their probe came close to the CIA director. But rules normally forbid revealing too much too soon to members of an administration about others who are being investigated. Privacy and reputations can be needlessly damaged if the allegations don’t pan out.

Besides, if the FBI had notified the White House sooner about Petraeus, we might well be hearing howls from lawmakers, including King, that the investigation had become politicized.

Now that the cat’s out of the bag, a vigorous debate has erupted over whether Petraeus should have resigned or not. He might have been able to carry out his job as well as ever, but as a fellow Army veteran, I appreciate his bow to the high value that the military culture puts on honor.

He did the right thing to preserve whatever public honor he has left, which is considerable. The rest is between him and his family.

CLARENCE PAGE’s column is distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.

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