Few expected the news Friday night about David Petraeus’ possible criminal indictment, but nearly as interesting was the reaction to the news from his Capitol Hill admirers.
If you missed the news late last week, the New York Times reported that officials at the Justice Department and the FBI believe Petraeus, the former CIA chief and a retired four-star general, leaked classified information to his mistress and should face criminal prosecution. The decision on whether to pursue an indictment has reportedly been on Attorney General Eric Holder’s desk for a while, raising suspicions of preferential treatment given Petraeus’ status.
For his part, the retired general has acknowledged the affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, but denies having provided her with classified information. The same NYT report added that Petraeus “has no interest in a plea deal that would spare him an embarrassing trial.”
The whole ordeal reflects a stunning fall from grace for one of the nation’s highest profile military leaders, but Petraeus’ backers are still rallying to his defense. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who’ve made no secret of their enthusiastic admiration for Petraeus, issued a public condemnation on Saturday, siding with the accused and blasting the accusers for their “callous treatment” of the suspected felon.
“While the facts of the case involving General David Petraeus remain unknown and are not suitable for comment, it is clear that this investigation has been grievously mishandled.“It is outrageous that the highly confidential and law enforcement-sensitive recommendation of prosecutors to bring charges against General Petraeus was leaked to the New York Times. It is a shameful continuation of a pattern in which leaks by unnamed sources have marred this investigation in contravention to fundamental fairness.”
It wasn’t clear which “pattern” the Republicans were referring to – no one outside the Justice Department seems to have known anything about this before Friday.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) also seemed to side with Petraeus. “This man has suffered enough, in my view,” she told CNN, adding, “People aren’t perfect. He made a mistake. He lost his job as CIA director because of it. I mean, how much do you want to punish somebody? … It’s done. It’s over. And he’s retired. He’s lost his job. I mean, how much does government want?”
Arguably the most striking reaction came by way of Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.).
Consider this exchange yesterday between the Republican senator and ABC’s George Stephanopoulos:
STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you think [Petraeus] should be prosecuted for mishandling classified information?BURR: Well, George, let me say this, I have tremendous trust in the FBI to do their investigation. I still reference back to the president’s remarks when he announced Gen. Petraeus’ resignation, where he said this did not reach a level that put national security in jeopardy. And I think the statute of the law says it has to reach that for there to be a prosecution. I’ll let the FBI and the Justice Department work through this. But I always will go back to what the president told us when he announced the resignation of David Petraeus.STEPHANOPOULOS: So you believe there was no harm to national security?BURR: Well, I think it’s – the burden of proof is on the bureau and on the Justice Department, I think, to present to America where it was and why the president was wrong.
I see. So, the former director of the CIA is facing a possible criminal indictment for allegedly leaking classified information, and according to the new chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, what really matters is whether President Obama was right or wrong in his complimentary comments about Petraeus.
Even when a story has nothing to do with the president, for Republican politicians with a one-track-mind, it’s an opportunity to complain about the president.
As for this general response from Capitol Hill about Petraeus, I’m obviously not in a position to evaluate the specific allegations on the merits, but in recent years, a variety of figures – some well known, some not – have been accused of leaking classified information. As a rule, the reaction from the Washington establishment has been rather aggressive, seeking harsh penalties, and forgoing the “people aren’t perfect” defense.
If there are officials in the Attorney General’s office who fear a political backlash in response to a Petraeus indictment, it would appear those concerns are well grounded.