Hearings on Capitol Hill into the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, get underway Thursday. The episode—and questions over U.S. intelligence that led to potential security lapses and may have contributed to the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others—has become one of President Barack Obama’s top challenges post-election.
The House Select Committee on Intelligence will meet in a classified hearing Thursday morning with a full panel: CIA Acting Director Michael Morell, FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and Under Secretary of State Patrick Kennedy.
Missing from that panel is Gen. David Petraeus, the director of the CIA and one of the longest-serving military officers in the U.S. war on terror—until he resigned unexpectedly on Friday, admitting he had an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell.
Gen. Petraeus has agreed to testify before congressional committees, and may do so before the Senate Intelligence Committee as early as Thursday. Members of Congress and some military analysts have suggested that Petraeus’ sudden departure may have been forced over his refusal to toe an administration line on the Benghazi attack.
“I’m not a conspiracy theorist and not a right-wing ideologue,” said Earl Tilford, a retired military intelligence officer and former director of research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute, “but I believe the administration was trying to get Petraeus to say something he did not want to say. They threatened him, and he resigned.”
Media attention has focused on Petraeus’ extramarital affair, and its attendant tangents—ultimately also implicating current commander of forces in Afghanistan Gen. John Allen. Allen exchanged emails the FBI has described as “inappropriate” with Jill Kelley, the military events coordinator at Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., where both Gen. Allen and Petraeus once served. It was Kelley’s complaint over harassing emails from Broadwell that launched the FBI investigation.
But given the Obama administration’s tolerance for non-traditional sexual lifestyles—and that Petraeus’ infidelity apparently broke no code of conduct for the CIA, or the military—his sudden resignation, three days after President Obama’s reelection and five days before Petraeus’ scheduled testimony on Benghazi, struck lawmakers and analysts as strange.
“If the president really wants to get to the essence of the truth as to what happened in Benghazi,” Tilford asked, “why did he not insist that Petraeus remain at his post until after his testimony clears the air? Certainly President Obama and his advisors understand that the Petraeus resignation at this critical time will only fan the flames of speculation concerning a Benghazi cover-up.”
Both the president and Vice President Joe Biden have long been opponents of the counterinsurgency strategy, known in military circles as COIN, authored by Petraeus and successfully implemented in Iraq in 2006 and 2007.
Civilian deaths across Iraq had dropped by 45 percent since the surge began, and were down 70 percent in Baghdad, when Petraeus, then commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, reported to Congress in late 2007. For the most part, Petraeus received a hero’s welcome in hours and hours of testimony on Capitol Hill. But when then-Sen. Obama’s turn to question Petraeus came, he swallowed his allotted seven minutes not questioning Petraeus but instead lectured him, saying that the surge in Iraq was a “disastrous foreign policy mistake.” Obama then told Petraeus, “I would argue its impact has been relatively modest given the investment.”
The president planned to end counterinsurgency activities in Iraq and now Afghanistan, as well as the CIA’s leading role in fighting terrorism, pursuing terrorists through criminal and legal challenges instead. But that movement, expected to accelerate in a second Obama term, got stood on its head by the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi and subsequent revelations about CIA activity there. Questions loom over why the U.S. military failed to respond to the attack, even though the White House was informed it was underway almost as soon as it began. And why the administration—including President Obama—for days blamed an obscure anti-Muslim video for sparking the rampage when U.S. intelligence, and Ambassador Stevens himself, had warned Washington of stepped-up terrorist activity there.
Wednesday, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham called for creation of a select committee to investigate the Benghazi attack.