Post-election, pre-fiscal-cliff-crisis Washington has been abuzz over General David Petraeus’s abrupt departure as Director of the CIA and the subsequent stream of shocking details. It didn’t take long for congressional Republicans to cue the conspiracy theories with an all-too-familiar refrain aimed at the Obama administration and Attorney General Eric Holder.
Whether or not an extramarital affair should be grounds for stepping down from a high-level post, it’s a tragic and potentially dangerous reality of hyper-partisan Washington that events are so easily perverted into partisan witch hunts — allegations, proven and unproven, used as weapons long before the truth is determined, ending far afield from the initial issues.
According to Justice Department officials, ongoing criminal investigations are not briefed outside the DOJ until the facts are known. There’s both a logical and legal reason for this: facts actually matter. As does an investigative process that protects the legal integrity of a case and any charges that could ultimately be filed. There is also a practical responsibility to the people involved — either directly or indirectly — and the potentially irreversibly damning nature of allegations.
As The New York Times reported, this policy was reinforced as recently as 2007 by Michael Mukasey, serving as attorney general under former President George W. Bush: “The memorandum, issued in the wake of the scandal over the firings of U.S. attorneys, sought to remind department employees that contacts with the White House and Congress about pending criminal matters were off limits.”
The FBI has said it determined this was about personal scandal, not espionage. The process appears to have worked as it’s meant to: As information was uncovered and verified, FBI officials briefed up their chain of command, leading ultimately to James Clapper at the Department of National Intelligence, who then reported the matter to the White House.
The polarized climate and hyper-partisan conduct of congressional Republicans in recent years also raises questions about whether or not they can be trusted not to abuse sensitive information. Leading the charge has been House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) — repeatedly, sensitive information has been inappropriately revealed when in his hands, from the release of secret wiretap information during the “Fast and Furious” gun-walking investigation to information about potential security lapses at our airports.
In their bloodlust to score political points over the consulate attack in Benghazi, Libya, Issa and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) even exposed sensitive information about CIA operations in Libya, releasing 166 pages of sensitive State Department materials, revealing the names and endangering the lives of a number of Libyans who have been working with the United States.
Very important, relevant questions remain about both the Petraeus departure and Benghazi. Americans just made it clear in the election that facts do matter. Congress must maintain its integrity in the process and refrain from using over-reaching rhetoric, invoking Watergate and Iran-Contra or trying to use these incidents to settle political scores.
There is no equivalence between these matters and actually lying to the American people about the existence of weapons of mass destruction, leaking the identity of a covert CIA operative in a time of war for political retribution, or forcing U.S. attorneys to do the political bidding of an administration.
It appears, in fact, to be simply an all-too-familiar tale about a man, a woman and an inappropriate, cataclysmically stupid thing.