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News Opinion Editorial

For all we've learned, Petraeus story still doesn't add up

Like a set of Russian dolls, in which each doll contains a slightly smaller version of itself hidden inside, the sex scandal that forced CIA Director David Petraeus from office last week seems full of secret compartments that have yet to be revealed.

Since Friday, we've been deluged with tantalizing details about the affair between Mr. Petraeus, 60, and Paula Broadwell, 40, a former Army officer and married mother of two who published a fawning biography of him this year. But there are still too many pieces of this puzzle that just don't seem to fit.

Initial reports indicated that Mr. Petraeus had stepped down after FBI investigators uncovered the relationship between him and Ms. Broadwell while pursuing a complaint about harassing emails sent anonymously to a another woman, Jill Kelley, who was described as a friend of Mr. Petraeus and his wife. The FBI traced the emails back to Ms. Broadwell's computer, where they also found personal messages from Mr. Petraeus suggesting the two were having an affair, which they both later admitted.

But the FBI found no evidence of a crime or national security threat in their correspondence, and as a result Mr. Petraeus, who had broken off the relationship with Ms. Broadwell by then, apparently believed he could continue on as head of the CIA as long as the matter remained secret.

And that is where things get tricky. The FBI says its investigators did not report Mr. Petraeus' affair to higher-ups in the Justice Department or the White House because no criminal wrongdoing or security threat was involved that would justify sullying Mr. Petraeus' public reputation for what was ostensibly a private moral failing. The White House says President Barack Obama wasn't informed of the investigation until Nov. 7, the day after the election. Yet that week, Mr. Petraeus was told by his boss, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, that the best course for him was to submit his resignation, which the president reluctantly accepted Friday.

Neither Mr. Clapper nor Mr. Petraeus has said why Mr. Petraeus had to resign even though the affair and the FBI investigation that uncovered it had not been made public until then. The only reasonable explanation for Mr. Petraeus' abrupt departure is that they knew it would soon come out and wanted to get ahead of events to minimize the political damage from the scandal.

That suggests they already knew someone in the FBI had leaked the story, and the most likely person to have done so is the as-yet-unidentified agent in Tampa whom Ms. Kelley initially contacted about the harassing emails she had received — and who, it turns out, also emailed her bare-chested photos of himself after their encounter. That agent reportedly did an end run around FBI rules by calling Republican House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor to complain the agency was sitting on the investigation.

In an even more bizarre twist, on Tuesday the Pentagon announced that the FBI had discovered between 20,000 and 30,000 "potentially inappropriate" emails between Ms. Kelley and Gen. John R. Allen, the commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, who replaced Mr. Petraeus as the top military commander there when the latter retired from the military last year to become CIA chief. Though the contents of those emails have not been made public, the revelation caused Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to immediately put a hold on General's Allen's promotion to become NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe.

What the heck is going on here? Why did Ms. Kelley's FBI contact report the investigation of Mr. Petraeus to Mr. Cantor's office even though he had been off the case, and what was Mr. Cantor's role in potentially making that information public? What was the relationship between General Allen and Ms. Kelley that raised such red flags for Mr. Panetta that he was willing to derail one of the military's most important command appointments? And what other scandals may be lurking just out of view, waiting to throw a monkey wrench into the heart of the country's military and intelligence establishment?

It's hard to believe something as trivial as extramarital fling between a powerful official and a younger woman could wreak such havoc, and it's inevitable that conspiracy theorists on the right and on the left will interpret what happens next in light of their particular obsessions and paranoia. Already, some Republicans are claiming Mr. Petraeus' implosion is part of a diabolical plot by the White House to discredit him when, as expected, he testifies before Congress about the terrorist attack this past Sept. 11 on the U.S. consulate in Libya.

One needn't subscribe to such an outlandish theory to suspect there are forces at work that we still can't quite see, a common denominator that ties all the pieces of this unexpected scandal in a way that makes sense. We can accept that Mr. Petraeus may have resigned simply because he felt he had violated his own personal code of honor in entering into an affair with Ms. Broadwell, and we can respect him for that decision.

But that still leaves too many questions about how this episode unfolded. In Congress, leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees have demanded to know why they weren't informed of the FBI investigation or its results. They deserve answers — and so do the American people.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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