Possible motives for forcing Petraeus resignation

Among the most significant articles to be published in recent days regarding Benghazi and the Petraeus resignation is a Wall Street Journal article posted late Thursday evening on their site.

See Adam Entous and Siobhan Gorman, “In Final Days, Petraeus Hurt by Libya Clash, Then Affair,” Wall Street Journal, November 14, 2012 (updated 10:32 p.m.).

In looking for a possible motive for forcing the ouster of one of the president’s key foreign policy advisers, without a fight, it is interesting to note that Petraeus had significant tensions with other intelligence officials in the weeks leading up to his resignation.

Entous and Gorman report,

WASHINGTON—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.

At issue was whether the CIA should break its silence about its role in Benghazi, Libya, to counter criticism that increasingly was being leveled at the agency and Mr. Petraeus, said senior officials involved in the discussions.

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.

Specific tensions over the talking points prepared for Susan Rice for her Sunday talk show appearances on September 16 became a matter of varying accounts by officials on background.

Criticism of Mr. Petraeus within the administration rose after the Benghazi attacks. Some senior administration officials at the time described Mr. Petraeus as disengaged in the attacks’ aftermath.

The CIA decided to keep secret its extensive security and intelligence-collection role in Benghazi, and Mr. Petraeus didn’t attend ceremonies for two CIA security contractors killed in the attacks.

Officials close to Mr. Petraeus said he was fully engaged, reviewing intelligence reports and taking part in meetings about the attacks.

Some administration officials felt they took the blame for using the CIA’s shifting accounts of what happened in Benghazi. Initially, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and other top policy makers used CIA talking points to make the case that the attacks were preceded by a spontaneous protest over an anti-Islam video created in the U.S.—an assessment the agency later abandoned. Critics said the attacks had the markings of an organized strike by al Qaeda-linked militants but the White House was initially more cautious about making such links.

The release on November 2 of the CIA timeline of events in Benghazi did not please James Clapper and other intelligence officials outside of the CIA.

As questions mounted, a Fox News report Oct. 26 alleged that the CIA delayed sending a security force to protect U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and others who were under attack. Mr. Stevens and three other Americans died.

The CIA denied the report, then began pulling together its own timeline of events.

The Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies objected to Mr. Petraeus’s decision to mount a solo defense. “We conveyed our objections. Multiple agencies did,” a senior military official said.

Mr. Petraeus’s decision to release the CIA’s timeline to the press didn’t sit well with Mr. Clapper, who was unaware it would be made public, officials said. Other agencies saw Mr. Petraeus’s decision as a step aimed at presenting the CIA and Mr. Petraeus in the best light and forcing them to accept the brunt of the criticism.

James Clapper’s spokesman, Shawn Turner, stated Clapper did not talk to the White House before strongly suggesting to Petraeus that he resign, after receiving a call from the FBI on November 6 informing him of Petraeus’ affair with Paula Broadwell. The resignation climax swiftly followed:

Meanwhile, one week after the turf fight over the CIA’s release of its Benghazi timeline, the FBI told Mr. Clapper about Mr. Petraeus’s extramarital affair, said officials familiar with the timeline.

Mr. Turner said Mr. Clapper had no doubt when he spoke to Mr. Petraeus on Nov. 7 that “resigning was the honorable thing for Petraeus to do,” describing the discussion as “difficult” and “painful.” He didn’t consult with the White House first. Mr. Clapper informed the White House that day that Mr. Petraeus was considering resigning, these officials said. The next morning, Mr. Petraeus called Tom Donilon, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, to request a meeting with the president, the officials said.

Mr. Donilon then briefed Mr. Obama. The president met Nov. 8 with Mr. Petraeus, who offered to resign. Mr. Obama told Mr. Petraeus he would think about it overnight, the officials said.

Officials said Mr. Obama didn’t try to talk Mr. Petraeus out of leaving. On Nov. 9, Mr. Obama called Mr. Petraeus and accepted the resignation.

As the authors observed earlier in the article,

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.

Conclusions

1. David Petraeus pushed back against other intelligence officials who appeared to be blaming the CIA for failing to respond quickly to the initial attack.

2. One of the reasons Petraeus was initially coy was that he (perhaps with others) had decided to try to keep the CIA black operation in Benghazi a secret. This is why news reports from American sources took so long to report on what the black operation in Benghazi was doing.

It now appears that they were trying to collect heavy weapons which had become available to militants after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, were monitoring some jihadist groups, and may have been supplying weapons to militant groups in Syria, through militant groups in Libya. This latter point is the most controversial aspect, whose details remain clouded in secrecy.

David Ignatius reports the following:

The CIA had a substantial base in Benghazi, with at least a half-dozen former military special forces assigned there as part of the “Global Response Staff.” These were the muscle-bound security guys known to flippant earlier generations of CIA case officers as “knuckle-draggers.” They were in Benghazi in such numbers in part because the CIA was supporting the State Department’s programto collect the shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles that had gone loose after the fall of Col. Moammar Gaddafi. Agency officers may also have been working with Libyan militias to help them become effective security forces.

–David Ignatius, “Charting a post-Petraeus era,” Washington Post, November 13, 2012.

The New York Times has added the following details:

The C.I.A.’s surveillance targets in Benghazi and eastern Libya include Ansar al-Sharia, a militia that some have blamed for the attack, as well as suspected members of Al Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa, known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

American intelligence operatives also assisted State Department contractors and Libyan officials in tracking shoulder-fired missiles taken from the former arsenals of the former Libyan Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces; they aided in efforts to secure Libya’s chemical weapons stockpiles; and they helped train Libya’s new intelligence service, officials said.

–Eric Schmitt, Helene Cooper and Michael S. Schmidt, “Deadly Attack in Libya Was Major Blow to C.I.A. Efforts,” New York Times, September 23, 2012.

The more explosive question is whether Benghazi was a major CIA center in Africa, where heavy and other weapons were being purchased from militants in Libya, and then some of them were being shipped on to the rebels in Syria. If true, the facts remain highly classified, and may be among those which the governmnet asked news organizations to withhold in the early days after 9/11/12.

See

Michael Kelley, “There’s A Reason Why All Of The Reports About Benghazi Are So Confusing,” Business Insider (Military and Defense), November 3, 2012 (10:28 PM).

3. Petraeus upset Clapper and other intelligence officials when he released the CIA timeline of events in Benghazi on November 2, over their objections.

4. Clapper pushed Petraeus toward immediate resignation by strongly suggesting that he resign in one or both of their conversations on Tuesday night and Wednesday, November 6 and 7.

5. Petraeus called Tom Donilon on Wednesday, and arranged a meeting with the president on Thursday.

6. Obama did not immediately accept Petraeus’ resignation when then met on Thursday, November 8. Nor, according to the reports that have come out, did he strongly urge Petraeus not to resign, or offer assurances that he would fight to keep him in office if his affair with Broadwell became public.

7. Intelligence officials were concerned that Petraeus might publicly state positions at variance with their own on Benghazi, as in fact he did on November 2 with the release of the CIA timeline on events in Benghazi.

8. The announcement of a continuing inquiry into Petraeus by the CIA on Thursday, November 15, gave the appearance that the administration might be trying to influence his testimony to Congress on Friday, November 16.

9. Petraeus testified on November 16 that the original draft CIA talking points included the names of the al-Qaeda related organizations that were behind the attack, and the fact that there had been changes to eliminate those references before they were given to Susan Rice for Sunday talk show appearances on September 16.

10.  At this point it is difficult to know for sure whether the credibility crisis the Obama administration has created for itself in relation to Benghazi has been the result of incredible ineptness by Obama’s foreign policy team, “the gang who couldn’t shoot straight”, a deliberate downplaying of the known al Qaeda connections of those behind the attacks on the U.S. mission and CIA annex in Benghazi, for political purposes, or a combination of the two. At the moment, it looks like a combination of the two.

11.  The familiar Watergate dynamic continues to unfold:  stonewalling, drip-by-drip revelations, and rapidly increasing loss of trust and credibility.

12.  The president has a first-class crisis on his hands.  He needs to get out in front of it as quickly as he can if he is to govern effectively in his second term.  The arrogance and hubris of the president and his team may be the greatest obstacles he faces in terms of understanding clearly how perilous his situation currently is.  They represent formidable personal challenges to Obama, particularly coming as they do precisely at this moment of electoral triumph (at least in the White House and the Senate).

Obama needs Democrats to stop making this a partisan issue, and to break through his bubble and make it clear to him that drastic action is required.  As suggested earlier, the president needs to bring in someone with recognized experience, prestige, and credibility, someone like David Gergen, to manage his communications strategy with respect to Petraeus and Benghazi, and more.  His current strategy of “I am right, and I was right” has failed.  

Spectacularly. 

The Trenchant Observer

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