General Confusion

Why the Petraeus scandal isn’t the national security scandal Republicans wanted.

CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus, left, shakes hands with biographer Paula Broadwell.

Gen. Petraeus with Paula Broadwell in 2011

Photo by ISAF via Getty Images.

It began with one FBI agent and no shirt. The downfall of CIA Director David Petraeus started in May, in Tampa, when a freelance military party planner named Jill Kelley grew fed up with some harassing emails she’d been getting from Petraeus’ alleged mistress, Paula Broadwell. Kelley contacted an FBI agent, a friend so close that he had “sent shirtless photos to her.” She got results, sort of, as the agent opened a cybercrimes investigation into the emails.

And then the story got to Washington. The agent was “barred from the case” because, even when clothed, he seemed too obsessed with it. He called Rep. Dave Reichert, a Republican whose district in the Seattle suburbs is three times zones away from Tampa. Reichert routed the agent to Rep. Eric Cantor, the majority leader in the House, to speak to someone about an issue that might have compromised classified information. On Oct. 31, four days after the contact, Cantor took the story to FBI Director Robert Mueller. By that time, both Petraeus and Broadwell had already been interviewed by the bureau.

Why did the agent take this story to Republicans? According to the New York Times, the agent had an unspecified “worldview” that led him to suspect “a politically motivated cover-up to protect President Obama.” As of today, he’s totally alone in that. Republicans don’t want to speculate about the Petraeus scandal. They resent that it’s coming up. They want to focus on the Sept. 11 killings in Benghazi—which they fear has been covered up in a politically motivated plot to protect President Obama.

On Tuesday, the first post-election day of House and Senate votes, Republicans and Democrats gritted teeth and tried to get past the story. Neither Reichert nor Cantor added anything to the public record when asked. As the Senate held a roll call vote on a “sportsmen’s bill,” Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein shrugged off new versions of old questions. Would the disgraced Petraeus appear before the Benghazi inquiry? “If not this week, then another week.” Did the alleged affair endanger national security? “I don’t know.” Feinstein punched the button that could take her out of the scrum. “Elevator, where are you?”

Before this story broke, the Benghazi investigation had been relatively uncomplicated. On Tuesday, a closed-door briefing would bring the acting CIA director together with Senate Intelligence committee members. On Wednesday, the House Select Committee on Intelligence will get a similar briefing. On Thursday, the administration will reckon with the full House and Senate committees. Those meetings are proceeding as planned, but with the new, paparrazzi-ready trimmings of a sex scandal involving a freelance “military social liaison” who ran a fake “cancer charity” that blew its money on parties and piled up debts of her own as her sister dated the former governor of Florida.

“You’re all asking questions today,” said Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, the former Republican chair of the Intelligence committee, chiding the media for glomming on to a juicy story. “You disappeared before.”

But “before” was during the election. At that time, Republican assertions about Benghazi were twinned with a critique of a president they wanted to defeat. According to Sen. John McCain, campaigning for Mitt Romney, the president effectively “allowed” the attack to happen and let four men die when “they didn’t need to.”

With the election over, they’ve tempered the criticism. After today’s closed-door briefing, Sen. Marco Rubio said he wanted to hear more from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but went easy on the woman who might replace her, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. “Obviously she based those comments on information or directives that she had,” he said, “and it’s important to know what directives those were and who that information came from.” It was a long way from “what did she know and when did she know it.” As Sen. Jim DeMint exited the briefing, he said “we’re getting to the bottom of it” and jumped on the Senate subway to be whisked elsewhere. Last month’s bluster about Benghazi was mostly gone.

This can’t be separated from the Petraeus story. The basic details, such as the use of Gmail drafts as a paramour message service, reveal an astounding lack of common sense and security from a man lionized by Republicans. Last month Republicans thought that Barack Obama’s feckless team had failed Americans in Benghazi. Now they know that the FBI was on to Petraeus this summer, and that the director was talking to the bureau about an affair during the hottest stretch of the scandal.

Those facts are going to prompt more questions. Two House Republicans learned of a scandal that was ensnaring national security figures, and did not run to the press with it. An FBI agent managed to open a “cybercrimes” investigation for a woman who was remarkably abusive of other people’s time and money. The overzealousness of the investigation paid off, in a way, but what precedent was set here? When I asked Sen. Roberts about the FBI agent’s decision, he was as confused as anyone could be.

“It strikes me as …” He paused. “It doesn’t add up. It doesn’t make any sense. A lot of this doesn’t make any sense.”