WASHINGTON — CIA director and retired Army General David H. Petraeus, the accomplished battlefield commander credited with turning around American fortunes in Iraq before retooling the military strategy in Afghanistan, resigned in disgrace on Friday after admitting to an extramarital affair that some specialists suggested could have compromised national security.
“After being married for over 37 years, I showed extremely poor judgment by engaging in an extramarital affair,” Petraeus wrote in a resignation letter to CIA employees Friday. “Such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours.”
According to the New York Times, government officials said the FBI had investigated whether a computer used by Petraeus had been compromised. In the course of that inquiry, federal investigators discovered the relationship, officials said.
Administration and congressional sources told the Times the woman with whom he was having the affair was Paula Broadwell, author of a biography of Petraeus, “All In: The Education of General David Petraeus,” published this year. Broadwell could not be reached for comment.
The news of his resignation came as a shock to official Washington and across the country, where Petraeus has been regarded as a national hero, feted at the Super Bowl, and talked up as a possible future candidate for president.
“Holy Moses,” said Frederick Hitz, a longtime member of the agency’s clandestine service who served for eight years as the CIA’s inspector general. “This floors me. Maybe he was so strait-laced that when this came to the fore he didn’t know how to deal with it. This is a real blow. Oh, how the mighty fall in that city.”
After accepting the resignation, President Obama lauded Petraeus’ contributions, saying that throughout nearly four decades of service he “has made our country safer and stronger.”
“By any measure, he was one of the outstanding general officers of his generation, helping our military adapt to new challenges and leading our men and women in uniform through a remarkable period of service in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he helped our nation put those wars on a path to a responsible end,” Obama said in a statement. “As director of the Central Intelligence Agency, he has continued to serve with characteristic intellectual rigor, dedication, and patriotism.”
In the letter to CIA employees, Petraeus, whose wife Holly — the daughter of the West Point superintendent when Petraeus was a cadet in the 1970s — is a senior official at the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, did not divulge any details of the affair. Holly Petraeus declined to comment through a spokeswoman.
Meanwhile, a CIA official said the agency would not comment publicly, but stressed that the decision to step down had nothing to do with the controversy surrounding the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in September. The CIA has taken heat from Congress for failing to provide a clear picture of what happened and who was responsible for the deaths of the US ambassador and three other Americans.
Petraeus’s marital infidelity was a breach not only of his marriage vows but also the public trust, several specialists said. In his role as one of the top intelligence officials in the government, he was privy to the nation’s most sensitive national security secrets and may have opened himself up to be compromised.
“Any derogatory information that would lead you to be subject to blackmail by a foreign intelligence service would be potentially a basis for revoking your security clearance or not granting one to begin with,” said John Pike of the GlobalSecurity.org, an Alexandria, Va., think tank. “You are required to disclose any compromising information, from financial irregularities to an extramarital affair.”
Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said Petraeus’s resignation spares the agency more potential damage.
“Behavior of the kind that is perceived as scandalous would be problematic for the CIA director,” he said. “It would make it harder for the agency to enforce standards among its workforce, and it would be a significant distraction in terms of the agency’s public relations.”
While cautioning that the details of the affair are unknown, he added: “I think he could have chosen to weather the storm if he wanted to, but it would have been difficult.”
Hitz agreed that Petraeus had put himself in an untenable position.
“At that level at CIA there are no secrets,” he said. “With a person of that importance that kind of an affair, had he not chosen to acknowledge it, would have been known. It would have been used in a way that was haunting and disruptive of his work.”
Petraeus, who holds a doctorate from Princeton University, is considered the leading military strategist of the post-9/11 military. He commanded a division in the early days of the Iraq war, where he was credited with crafting a new, more sophisticated approach to military operations that placed greater emphasis on winning over local populations as a way of marginalizing insurgents, not simply using firepower to kill the enemy.
He went on to rewrite the Army’s Counterinsurgency Manual before commanding all US troops in the Middle East. Then, in 2009, Obama called on him to effectively take a demotion by taking command of US forces in Afghanistan as the White House increased American troops there in an effort to beat back the Taliban’s advance. In 2011, when he retired as a four-star general, he was tapped to run the CIA. He has not been without his detractors, but private criticism has mostly focused on what is perceived as his outsized ego.
His boss, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said in a statement on Friday that “Dave’s decision to step down represents the loss of one of our nation’s most respected public servants. From his long, illustrious Army career to his leadership at the helm of CIA, Dave has redefined what it means to serve and sacrifice for one’s country.”
The CIA’s deputy director, career intelligence officer Michael J. Morrell, was named as acting director Friday.
In a 2011 interview with Don Imus, Broadwell described how she met Petraeus as a graduate student at Harvard.
“I was studying at the time, and a group of students was asked to meet with him,” she recalled. “After he gave a presentation, to the entire student body, and I went up to him and said I’m working on this research and I’d love to get your feedback or connect with folks in your military organizations to share these ideas and he gave me his card, and we kept in touch.
“So, I decided then to pursue my PhD and reached out to him and asked if I could interview him for the case that I mentioned earlier,” she added. “We kept in touch then, basically via e-mail and occasionally, if I was in Washington, and he was in Washington, we’d go for a run.”
As recently as Monday Broadwell wrote an article for The Daily Beast titled “General David Petraeus’s Rules for Living,” which included this one: “We all will make mistakes. The key is to recognize them and admit them, to learn from them.”Brian Bender can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.