The Wall Street Journal had a long article this weekend on the Obama administration’s decision-making process with regard to Syria. You can read the whole thing here if you have a WSJ.com subscription. My takeaway is that the administration’s deliberations do not inspire much confidence. As Journal reporter Adam Entous notes, the “process has been slowed by internal divisions, miscalculations and bureaucratic inertia.”
Former CIA Director David Petraeus emerges as the strongest proponent within the administration of arming moderate Syrian rebels. He had the support of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton but she “and other advocates of arming the rebels didn’t in the end aggressively push for the initiative… as it became clear where Mr. Obama stood, according to current and former administration officials.” As this passage shows, the president has been the biggest obstacle to a more active role to end the slaughter in Syria. His “Syria strategy is emblematic,” the article notes, “of the administration’s policy of limiting Washington’s role as global policeman.”
Leon Panetta made a fascinating disclosure in his congressional testimony on Thursday: He revealed that he had backed the proposal by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus last year to arm the Syrian rebels. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, revealed that he too was supportive. So if all of the major players on President Obama’s national security team were in favor, why was nothing done?
As Michael Gordon of the New York Times, who first broke the story about Clinton and Petraeus’s support for arming the rebels, put it: “The White House, however, was worried about the risks of getting more deeply involved in the crisis in Syria. And with President Obama in the midst of a re-election bid, the White House rebuffed the plan, rejecting the advice of most of the key members of Mr. Obama’s national security team.”
The Obama administration is only beginning its second term, but it is already clear that its mishandling of Syria is turning out to be one of its biggest foreign policy failures. The evidence accumulates every day–whether in the form of more dead bodies piling up in Syria, or more refugees crowding neighboring countries, or more foreign jihadists rushing into Syria. Just yesterday the New York Times ran this interview with Hajji Marea, one of the most potent rebel commanders to emerge out of the fighting, who is quoted as follows:
“America keeps silent,” he said. “The way we see it as Arabs: If you are silent, then you are agreeing with what is happening.”
Sitting nearby, Abdel-Aziz Salameh, Al Tawhid’s political leader, warned that time was running short for the United States. “All the world has abandoned us,” he said. “If the revolution lasts for another year, you’ll see all the Syrian people like Al Qaeda; all the people will be like Al Qaeda.”
After Ray Donovan, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of labor, was cleared of corruption charges, he famously and plaintively asked, “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?” That is a question that General John Allen might be asking himself today.
Yesterday afternoon the press office at the Pentagon issued this terse statement: “Secretary Panetta has been informed that the Department’s Office of Inspector General has concluded an investigation into a matter involving General John Allen, U.S. Marine Corps. The Secretary was pleased to learn that allegations of professional misconduct were not substantiated by the investigation. The Secretary has complete confidence in the continued leadership of General Allen, who is serving with distinction in Afghanistan.”
Scott Shane of the New York Times has written a long and somewhat awkward article about the indictment, plea bargain, and federal prison sentencing of former CIA officer John Kiriakou. Long, because the story is complicated, and Shane must recount about a decade’s worth of national security history and policy to get us from A to Z. Awkward, because Shane is a prominent element in the federal indictment against Kiriakou.
At the heart of this case is information Kiriakou provided to Shane for a story, and to another reporter for a second story. We often see such stories play out through a drama in which reporters protect their sources and risk jail time to do so. But in this case, Shane could not protect Kiriakou, nor was it at all clear that Kiriakou would have needed such protection. Kiriakou became a minor media star in 2007 when he spoke out about the agency’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding. Kiriakou defended the decision to waterboard in 2002 (“I think the second-guessing of 2002 decisions is unfair,” he told Shane) but was against the practice going forward. Shane asked Kiriakou about another CIA officer. Kiriakou said he knew the officer, and that the two had worked together in pursuit of Abu Zubaydah. The officer never agreed to talk to Shane, and had never been undercover. But Kiriakou’s email to Shane turned up in the indictment against him for revealing the identity of an agent.
General John Allen is now back in Kabul, directing a major military campaign involving 68,000 U.S. troops and 37,000 allied troops. But he would have to be superhuman to keep his focus entirely on the war effort, for he is still under fire from the home front. According to the New York Times, “some 15 investigators” are “working seven days a week in the Pentagon inspector general’s office,” poring over emails exchanged between Allen and Tampa socialite Jill Kelley, who struck up friendships with many senior military officers.
The question is: Why? Is there some credible evidence that Allen somehow compromised our national security by his interactions with Kelley? Is Kelley suspected of being an al-Qaeda mole? Is Allen suspected of being another Benedict Arnold? Not that I’m aware of. To judge by the numerous leaks that have accompanied this puzzling investigation, an outgrowth of the same investigation that already forced David Petraeus’s resignation as CIA director, the worst that could have occurred is that Allen and Kelley might have exchanged a few emails judged to be flirtatious or even salacious. Is this really a matter that should be occupying the full-time attention of 15 investigators—and diverting the attention of a general in command of a war zone?
CBS reports that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence removed references to terrorism from the CIA talking points before distribution:
CBS News has learned that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) cut specific references to “al Qaeda” and “terrorism” from the unclassified talking points given to Ambassador Susan Rice on the Benghazi consulate attack – with the agreement of the CIA and FBI. The White House or State Department did not make those changes. …
However, an intelligence source tells CBS News correspondent Margaret Brennan the links to al Qaeda were deemed too “tenuous” to make public, because there was not strong confidence in the person providing the intelligence. CIA Director David Petraeus, however, told Congress he agreed to release the information — the reference to al Qaeda — in an early draft of the talking points, which were also distributed to select lawmakers. …
The head of the DNI is James Clapper, an Obama appointee. He ultimately did review the points, before they were given to Ambassador Rice and members of the House intelligence committee on Sept. 14. They were compiled the day before.
Brennan says her source wouldn’t confirm who in the agency suggested the final edits which were signed off on by all intelligence agencies.
First, the CIA answers to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, so the whole notion that the CIA “agreed” to the changes is moot. They “agreed” to the changes because they were told to by the ODNI. Second, Clapper is clearly sprinting from this — the responsibility for the changes is pinned vaguely on the “Office of the Director of National Intelligence,” without much mention of him. The article actually leaves open the possibility that somebody else within the ODNI changed the talking points without running the changes by Clapper first, as if that’s believable.
David Petraeus reportedly told Congress on Friday that the original CIA talking points linked the Benghazi attack to terrorism, but that part was edited out by unknown officials before distribution. The question is, who edited the talking points, and was it politically motivated?
According to Senator Saxby Chambliss, every agency that could have made these changes also pleaded ignorance at Friday’s closed-door hearing. The one entity that wasn’t at the hearing and could have changed the talking points? The White House:
Leaders from the State Department, FBI, CIA, including former CIA Director David Petraeus, testified on Thursday and Friday. Regarding the allegations that the original CIA talking points had been changed so that terrorist involvement was not included, Sen. Chambliss said, “Everybody there was asked do you know who made these changes; and nobody knew. The only entity that reviewed the talking points that was not there was the White House.”
The most unseemly aspect of the scandal surrounding David Petraeus is the gleeful Schadenfreude being exhibited by so many who are eager to kick a great man when he is temporarily down. One of the most egregious and nauseating examples is this New York Times op-ed by Lucian Truscott IV entitled “A Phony Hero for a Phony War.” It is insulting not only to Petraeus but to all those men and women who have served valiantly and at great risk in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Truscott is a West Point graduate with a famous name–his grandfather, Lucian Truscott Jr., was a notable general in World War II. Truscott IV, to judge by his preening description of himself, has rather less achievements to his name; he did not last long in the army and has made a career as a freelance writer and screenwriter, often sniping at the military establishment. He is apparently so in thrall to his grandfather and his contemporaries that he seems to think that no modern general can possibly measure up. “Iraq wasn’t a real war at all,” he sneers, which will come as news to the thousands of Americans killed there and the tens of thousands injured.
During closed-door hearings with the House and Senate intelligence committees today, David Petraeus reportedly told lawmakers that the CIA “talking points” issued after the attack — which supported the “spontaneous demonstration” narrative — were altered by other agencies prior to distribution. AP reports:
Lawmakers said Petraeus testified that the CIA’s draft talking points written in response to the assault on the diplomat post in Benghazi that killed four Americans referred to it as a terrorist attack. But Petraeus told the lawmakers that reference was removed from the final version, although he wasn’t sure which federal agency took out the reference. …
Petraeus testified that the CIA draft written in response to the raid referred to militant groups Ansar al-Shariah and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) but those names were replaced with the word “extremist” in the final draft, according to a congressional staffer. The staffer said Petraeus testified that he allowed other agencies to alter the talking points as they saw fit without asking for final review, to get them out quickly.
CNN reports that David Petraeus will testify today in a closed-door hearing with the Senate Intelligence Committee that he knew the Benghazi attack was an act of terrorism carried out by Ansar al Sharia “almost immediately.” What’s more, he will reportedly distance himself from Susan Rice’s “spontaneous demonstration” talking points, which were ostensibly given to her by the CIA. Video and partial transcript below (h/t The Weekly Standard’s Dan Halper):
I had meant to write this a couple days ago, but as I was doing so, the motherboard on my 3-month-old laptop died. It’s fixed now, and so I’ve gotten my work back, and I think some of these points remain relevant, even as the story moves on. Jonathan Tobin has argued that Petraeus was right to resign, and I largely agree with his excellent points, but want to add one: I’m not so concerned about how unfair it is that more senior leaders like Bill Clinton not only cheated on their wives, but survived politically with even greater popularity. A military officer like Petraeus should be held to a higher standard than even the commander-in-chief.
Every officer and his or her spouse are a team. At every level of David Petraeus’s career, Holly Petraeus was his often unacknowledged partner not only in terms of personal support, but also in career. Officers’ wives are active not only in the military community, but also in the entertaining and diplomacy, which form an important part of any flag officers’ duties. Had Holly Petraeus not been so capable, her husband may not have achieved such a rapid rise. For an officer to betray his wife reflects not only a personal failing, which is more the business of the Petraeus family and few others, but also the betrayal of a long-standing, professional teammate.
The Seattle Times got its hands on that much-hyped “Shirtless FBI Agent” photo, and it’s not at all what we were led to believe. Apparently the photo was a joke the agent sent out to multiple friends, including Jill Kelley and a Seattle Times reporter, back in 2010. It shows the agent outside of MacDill Air Force Base, posing in between two SWAT target dummies that look a lot like him. The caption reads: ”Which One’s Fred?”
The Seattle Times, which also interviewed the shirtless agent (real name: Frederick Humphries), reports:
This morning’s Wall Street Journal sheds light on why the FBI’s discovery of David Petraeus’s affair may have been enough to lead to his downfall:
In David Petraeus’s final days at the helm of the Central Intelligence Agency, his relations with chiefs of other U.S. agencies, including his boss, National Intelligence Director James Clapper, took a contentious turn. …
Mr. Petraeus wanted his aides to push back hard and release their own timeline of the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi and a nearby CIA safe house, seeking to set the record straight and paint the CIA’s role in a more favorable light. Mr. Clapper and agencies including the Pentagon objected, but Mr. Petraeus told his aides to proceed, said the senior officials.
By all accounts, the driving force behind Mr. Petraeus’s departure last Friday was the revelation about his extramarital affair with his biographer. But new details about Mr. Petraeus’s last days at the CIA show the extent to which the Benghazi attacks created a climate of interagency finger-pointing. That undercut the retired four-star general’s backing within the Obama administration as he struggled with the decision to resign.
President Obama held a press conference this afternoon, and both the questions and the answers about the Benghazi consulate attack and the scandal surrounding David Petraeus were revelatory in their omission of one aspect of the story. Obama offered a tetchy response to a question about UN Ambassador Susan Rice, who was tasked with selling the administration’s line that it was an anti-Islam filmmaker who was responsible for the events that led to the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others that night. The president’s defense of Rice was another salvo in the ongoing fight over whether she should even be nominated to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. (Obama’s defiant air seemed to suggest he does plan to submit that nomination.)
And the Petraeus affair is sordid and steamy–a combination we simply cannot expect the press corps to ignore. But the events of the last week have made clear that Clinton is off the hook for what may have been the most consequential mistake of anyone in this episode. Yes, the CIA seems to have made mistakes in Benghazi, and yes, Susan Rice misled the American people (on the administration’s orders, we can presume). But the State Department was responsible for handling the diplomatic mission’s request for more security–a request they denied. Yet no one is suggesting Clinton should tender her own resignation.
It is hard to know what to make of FBI agents hauling a computer and crates of documents out of Paula Broadwell’s house as if she were a mafia don or a terrorist kingpin. That the bureau is devoting these kinds of resources to this case suggests that there must not be a lot of crime or terrorism to deal with anymore. What’s going on? My theory: The FBI is on a fishing expedition to justify what looks to be its increasingly untenable decision to treat a few annoying emails, sent by Paula Broadwell to Jill Kelley, as quite literally a federal case.
As the Washington Post notes: “The surprise move by the FBI follows assertions by U.S. officials that the investigation had turned up no evidence of a security breach — a factor that was cited as a reason the Justice Department did not notify the White House before last week that the CIA director had been ensnared in an e-mail inquiry.”
According to ABC News, the FBI is currently investigating Paula Broadwell for possessing classified information in her home and on her computer:
A source familiar with the case also told ABC News that Broadwell admitted to the FBI she took documents from secure government buildings. The government demanded that they all be given back, and when federal agents descended on her North Carolina home on Monday night it was a pre-arranged meeting.
Prosecutors are now determining whether to charge Broadwell with a crime, and this morning the FBI and military are pouring over the material. The 40-year-old author, who wrote the biography on Gen. Petraeus “All In,” is cooperating and the case, which is complicated by the fact that as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Military Reserve she had security clearance to review the documents.
The FBI found classified material on a computer voluntarily handed over by Broadwell earlier in the investigation. Prosecutors will now have to determine how important the classified material is before making a final decision. Authorities could decide to seek disciplinary action against her rather than pursue charges.
I agree with Max about the government’s tendency to overclassify. For all we know, the information Broadwell had could have been completely mundane. There are conflicting stories about whether she had a security clearance, but given her military and intelligence background, it’s seems likely she did. In that case, she would have been allowed access to classified information on her own, regardless of her relationship with Petraeus.
The theory that David Petraeus was pushed out at the CIA because someone didn’t want him testifying at this week’s Senate hearing never made much sense. He was going to have to testify eventually anyway, whether voluntarily or dragged there by a subpoena. And as we saw from his resignation last week, Petraeus seems like someone who prefers taking preemptive action rather than waiting for the hatchet to fall:
Former CIA Director David Petraeus has agreed to testify about the Libya terror attack before the House and Senate intelligence committees, Fox News has learned. …
The logistics of Petraeus’ appearance are still being worked out. But a source close to Petraeus said the former four-star general has contacted the CIA, as well as committees in both the House and Senate, to offer his testimony as the former CIA director.
Fox News has learned he is expected to speak off-site to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Friday about his Libya report.
The House side is still being worked out.
I, for one, am beginning to long for the days when people, including generals and other public officials, were allowed to conduct their indiscretions discreetly.
I just don’t think I can stand to hear another word about David Petraeus’s embarrassing mid-life crisis. Or about a hot mama (Jill Kelley) getting harassing notes from a not-quite-as-hot mama (Paula Broadwell) about a man neither of them had any business being proprietary about.
At Tablet, Lee Smith explains what the Petraeus affair could mean for U.S. Iran policy:
According to former Petraeus aides, leading military officials, policymakers, and analysts close to the four-star general that I spoke to this week, Petraeus understood, more than anyone else in our national-security apparatus, that the Islamic Republic is at war with the United States. By Petraeus’ reckoning, they said, it’s not possible to strike a grand bargain with Iran over its nuclear weapons program because the larger problem is the regime itself, whose endgame is to drive the United States from the region. And no arm of the regime is more dangerous than its external operations unit, the Qods Force, whose mastermind, Qassem Suleimani, is considered by Petraeus to be a personal enemy.
In seeing Iran as a threat to vital U.S. interests, Petraeus bucked the mainstream of more than 30 years of U.S. foreign policy. Presidents and legislators from both parties, as well as military and civilian officials, have tended to downplay the Iranian threat, seeking engagement with Tehran in the vague hopes of reaching a deal that might lead the regime to finally call off its dogs and leave us in peace. Petraeus, on the other hand, fought the Iranians.
As Smith goes on to explain, that fight was literal; while leading U.S. Central Command, Petraeus battled Iranian proxies in Iraq and Afghanistan. “During the course of almost a decade, Petraeus became Washington’s institutional memory of all of Iran’s activities directed against the United States and its allies,” writes Smith.