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The Petraeus Conundrum

There are some fascinating questions that come to mind regarding the current controversy concerning Gen. David Petraeus, and in the coming weeks and months many of the blanks will doubtless be filled in. To be sure, the personal dimension to the story will continue to draw much attention – infidelity and personal failure in high places will always have a certain allure. But there are some serious public issues involved that we hope will be pursued.

It’s obvious that news of this sort would dominate the media once it surfaced. Surely it would have sucked much of the air out of the story of the president’s efforts to rally the nation in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. It would also have drawn attention away from the president’s newly charged economic appeal to the middle class that had given him some late momentum in his electoral battle with Gov. Romney.

Yet it appears that the news about Gen. Petraeus was circulating long before the resignation, which occurred after the election. Thus, the FBI investigation that led to Gen. Petraeus’s stepping down began in May and continued until late summer, at which point Attorney General Eric Holder supposedly was notified. Yet it is claimed that it was only on November 6– Election Day – that the Justice Department informed Director of National Intelligence James Clapper of the investigation; that on November 7the White House was notified; and that the president was first told on November 8.

Maybe. But it certainly seems inconceivable that an investigation of this sort involving the head of the Central Intelligence Agency – including possible criminal liability for compromising classified national security information – would not have been brought to the attention of the president or his senior staff early on. So the issue of whether there was an effort by public officials to suppress the Petraeus story in order to enhance the president’s reelection prospects is squarely before us.

Perhaps more important, Gen. Petraeus appears to be the intelligence source cited by the president and his senior staff as the basis for their refusal, for more than two weeks, to characterize the Benghazi attack as a terrorist act despite evidence that it was indeed a well-planned operation of an Al Qaeda affiliate. Not a few critics noted that to have acknowledged that fact would have been inconsistent with the administration’s position that Al Qaeda and similar outfits had been routed by U.S. military action.

In any event, soon after the Benghazi attack, Gen. Petraeus testified before a congressional committee that the attack was a spontaneous reaction on the part of Muslims angered by an anti-Muhamamad video. Further, Gen. Petraeus was scheduled to testify at two congressional hearings, beginning November 15,on both the failure to anticipate and properly respond to the attack as well as the decision to identify it as something other than a terrorist attack.

With the Petraeus resignation, acting CIA director Michael Morell is now scheduled to testify on behalf of the CIA. Gen. Petraeus has indicated that he will not testify, and as a civilian he will have an easier time avoiding that prospect despite the intentions of some in Congress to demand that he appear.

Was the general’s resignation part of an effort to keep him from having to testify? One need not subscribe to all the conspiracy theories now swirling around these developments. Generally, they are not helpful. But there certainly are questions that need to be looked into.

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