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David Petraeus
Associated Press/Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais
David Petraeus

The president vs. the CIA

Politics | Timing in the Petraeus resignation is odd by any measure

Issue: "Divided we stand," Dec. 1, 2012

Sen. Barack Obama arrived late to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Sept. 11, 2007, where Gen. David Petraeus, then commander of forces in Iraq, would give his long-awaited report on progress of the U.S. surge strategy there. 

Already Petraeus had testified for five hours in the House the day before, and the results made headlines: Civilian deaths across Iraq had dropped by 45 percent, down 70 percent in Baghdad. But Obama swallowed his allotted seven minutes not in questioning Petraeus but lecturing him: He called Iraq a “disastrous foreign policy mistake” and the surge’s impact “relatively modest given the investment.” 

Obama’s antipathy toward the decorated four-star general, who mostly enjoyed a hero’s welcome to the Capitol that week, only deepened with Obama’s presidential victory and his naming Joe Biden as vice president. Biden as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had been a vocal critic of the counterinsurgency strategy (also known as COIN) authored by Petraeus. That continued in a 2009 memo from Biden to Obama arguing against the military’s recommendations for a troop increase in Afghanistan.

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When Petraeus returned home, his appointment to head the CIA rather than the Department of Defense was meaningful: Obama planned to end COIN as a strategy and the CIA’s leading role in fighting terrorism. That determination, expected to accelerate in a second Obama term, was turned on its head with the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and subsequent revelations about CIA activity there. 

Many military experts don’t believe the timing of Petraeus’ sudden resignation Nov. 9 was accidental—three days after the president’s reelection and five days before Petraeus was to testify before Congress on Benghazi. “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 the tawdry extramarital affair Petraeus had with biographer Paula Broadwell, and its attendant tangents—ultimately also implicating Gen. John Allen, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. But given the administration’s tolerance for non-traditional sexual lifestyles—and that Petraeus’ infidelity apparently broke no code of conduct for the CIA, and did not break precedent with past U.S. generals (think Eisenhower)—the sudden resignation is odd. Short of proving that Petraeus compromised national security with the affair (which could be the case), Obama may appear more bent on vendetta—or cover-up.

Said Tilford: “If the president really wants to get to the essence of the truth as to what happened in Benghazi, why did he not insist that Petraeus remain at his post until after his testimony clears the air?”


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