He has been the greatest soldier of my generation as well as a personal friend in the decades since we were instructors together at West Point. Will the last act in Gen. David Petraeus’ storied career be as the new John Dean in the still-unfolding scandal known as Benghazi-gate?
Sen. John McCain re-focused on the real issue lurking behind the sensational tabloid headlines about Gen. David Petraeus’s infidelity. The American people need to know if the reaction by the U.S. government to the attack on our consulate in Benghazi was a cover-up or screw-up. Flanked by fellow Republicans Sen. Lindsay Graham and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, Mr. McCain announced the introduction of a resolution calling for a Watergate-style select committee to investigate the conflicting claims, agendas and public pronouncements surrounding the attack.
Which brings us to Gen. Petraeus and the central role he might play in clarifying the difference between misadventure and malfeasance - not unlike John Dean, who broke Watergate wide open. The riveting testimony by former White House counsel John Dean clarified the two most incriminating facts concerning Richard Nixon: What the President knew and when he knew it. In the same way, Gen. Petraeus can reasonably testify about what Mr. Obama knew about Benghazi, when he knew it and what he did about it.
As Mr. McCain outlined those concerns on Wednesday, there was abundant evidence that the Benghazi consulate was a looming security disaster - from a classified cable sent a month before the attack to the last personal warning sent by Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. So why was nothing done, particularly in pre-positioning U.S. military forces as the September 11th anniversary approached? While you can never anticipate every attack, the potential for this one seems like a no-brainer. What about the flat-footedness of failing to mobilize a powerful military force able to deter or counter an attack that was so clearly anticipated? As the nation’s operational intelligence chief, was Gen. Petraeus aware of these threats? Did he ever discuss them with his president or other top administration officials? If so, what happened?
Probably the greatest clarification that Congress will be interested in obtaining from Gen. Petraeus is regarding his appearance during closed-door briefings on September 14th - three days after the attack. It was meant to inform congressional leaders about what the intelligence community really knew. By most accounts, Gen. Petraeus endorsed the story then being touted by the Obama administration, that the attack was not terrorism but a flash-mob reacting to a YouTube clip. Really, dude? What really rankles is that the CIA director, like other senior national-security officials, is sworn to protect the security of the United States without regard to partisan concerns. How could the director, knowing what he presumably knew, give credence to what even then seemed little more than a politically-inspired cover story?
Only days before the election, CIA officials arranged another closed-door briefing, this time to select media outlets. Its principal purpose: push-back, a classic Washington maneuver intended to counter press opposition. The result was a spate of stories clarifying the time-line of the Benghazi attack, its duration and the frantic efforts by CIA officials to react with the limited forces available. Specifically attacked was an earlier Fox News story that Washington authorities had ordered a “stand-down.”
Amidst the newly favorable stories about the CIA, no one seemed to notice that earlier versions of events had been discarded as smoothly as old snake-skins. Even more importantly, the national-security apparatus of the Obama administration had largely escaped critical scrutiny from a press establishment still hung over from the Kool-aid of the raid on Osama bin Laden. Mission accomplished and good job, everybody!
In addition to an honorable resignation, Gen. Petraeus still owes the American people and their representatives in Congress straight answers about his role in Benghazi-gate - before, during and afterwards. He should answer:
*As CIA Director, what steps did you take to insure that high officials in the administration, including the president, secretary of state and our U.N. ambassador, were making public pronouncements consistent with the most accurate information the government possessed?
*Do you have any reason to suspect that the indiscretion cited in your resignation was used to compel your adherence to the administration’s version of events after the Benghazi attack?
*Did you resign voluntarily or were you pushed?
When he testifies, it will be the first time since being sworn in at West Point that Gen. Petraeus raises his right hand solely on his own authority, acting under no orders except his own conscience. As his friend, I can only hope he demonstrates the bedrock character for which he is famous - and lets the chips fall where they may.
Col. Ken Allard, retired from the Army, is a former NBC News military analyst and author on national security issues.