WASHINGTON — The FBI and Justice Department prosecutors have recommended bringing felony charges against David H. Petraeus, contending he provided classified information to a lover while he was director of the CIA, officials said, leaving Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to decide whether to seek an indictment that could send the pre-eminent military officer of his generation to prison.
The Justice Department investigation stems from an affair Petraeus had with Paula Broadwell, an Army Reserve officer who was writing his biography, and focuses on whether he gave her access to his CIA email account and other highly classified information.
FBI agents discovered classified documents on her computer after Petraeus resigned from the CIA in 2012 when the affair became public.
Petraeus, a retired four-star general who served as commander of U.S. forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan, has said he never provided classified information to Broadwell and has indicated to the Justice Department he has no interest in a plea deal that would spare him an embarrassing trial. A lawyer for Petraeus, Robert B. Barnett, said Friday he had no comment.
The officials who said that charges had been recommended were briefed on the investigation but asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it.
Holder was expected to decide by the end of last year whether to bring charges against Petraeus, but he has not indicated how he plans to proceed. The delay has frustrated some Justice Department and FBI officials and investigators who have questioned whether Petraeus has received special treatment at a time Holder has led a crackdown on government officials who reveal secrets to journalists.
The protracted process has also frustrated Petraeus’ friends and political allies, who say it is unfair to keep the matter hanging over his head. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., wrote to Holder last month that the investigation had deprived the nation of wisdom from one of its most experienced leaders.
“At this critical moment in our nation’s security,” he wrote, “Congress and the American people cannot afford to have his voice silenced or curtailed by the shadow of a long-running, unresolved investigation marked by leaks from anonymous sources.”
Since his resignation from the CIA on Nov. 10, 2012, Petraeus has divided his time between teaching, making lucrative speeches and working as a partner in one of the world’s largest private-equity firms, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts.
Holder has said little publicly about the investigation. The FBI director, James B. Comey, asked by reporters in December why it was taking so long, said: “I can’t say. I mean, I guess I could say, but I won’t say.”
Marc Raimondi, a Justice Department spokesman, declined to comment on the investigation.
At a news conference shortly after Petraeus resigned, President Barack Obama said he had no evidence Petraeus had disclosed classified information “that in any way would have had a negative impact on our national security.”
“We are safer because of the work that Dave Petraeus has done,” Obama said, referring to his career in government. “And my main hope right now is — is that he and his family are able to move on and that this ends up being a single side note on what has otherwise been an extraordinary career.”
But investigators concluded that, whether the disclosure harmed national security, it amounted to a significant security breach in the office of one of the nation’s most trusted intelligence leaders. They recommended that Petraeus face charges, saying lower-ranking officials had been prosecuted for far less.
Federal agents stumbled onto the affair after Jill Kelley, a friend of Petraeus, complained to the FBI that she had received anonymous threatening emails about her relationship with Petraeus. FBI agents opened a cyberstalking investigation, traced the message to Broadwell and began searching her emails. That is when they discovered evidence that she and Petraeus were having an affair.
Petraeus is said to have begun the affair with Broadwell in 2011, soon after taking the job at the CIA and she was interviewing him for her book, “All In: The Education of General David Petraeus.”
Petraeus resigned from the CIA three days after Obama was re-elected. In a brief statement, Petraeus admitted to the affair, saying that “after being married for over 37 years, I showed extremely poor judgment.”
“Such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours,” Petraeus said, referring to the CIA. “This afternoon, the president graciously accepted my resignation.”
Petraeus, 62, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, took command of U.S. forces in Iraq in 2007, one of the lowest points in the war. Al-Qaida controlled large parts of the country, and dozens of American soldiers were dying each month.
Petraeus directed the so-called “surge” of American forces that helped stabilize Iraq enough so that the United States could withdraw its troops under Obama. In 2010, Obama chose him to lead U.S. forces in Afghanistan, where the Taliban was gaining territory. Petraeus had some success — although not nearly as much as he had in Iraq.
Along with his acumen on the battlefield, Petraeus was considered a natural political operator in Washington, where he easily navigated the politics of Congress, the White House and the Pentagon.
He fielded calls to run for president and cultivating a larger-than-life media image. All the while, he remained a trusted adviser to Obama, who appointed him to lead the CIA in 2011.
Note: This story was updated to remove a reference to an email allegedly sent to Jill Kelley.