Washington – CIA Director David Petraeus abruptly resigned Friday after admitting to an extramarital affair in a shocking end to a 37-year career in which he rose to become the Army’s leading counterinsurgency strategist, the top U.S. commander in Iraq and Afghanistan and then head of the country’s premier spy agency.
“After being married for over 37 years, I showed extremely poor judgment by engaging in an extramarital affair,” Petraeus said in a statement sent to the CIA workforce. “Such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours. This afternoon, the president graciously accepted my resignation.”
He disclosed no details of the affair, including the identity of the other person involved. But attention focused on his biographer, Paula Broadwell. News reports suggested that she was being investigated by the FBI for improperly trying to access Petraeus’ email, but law enforcement sources told McClatchy Friday evening that the FBI did not investigate the author for attempting to compromise Petraeus’ computer. The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, added that Petraeus was not and is not a target of an investigation.
Petraeus’ departure after only 14 months on the job and three days after President Barack Obama won re-election roiled Washington’s national security and political bureaucracies and continued a disruptive trend in which the CIA has seen four leaders depart in just eight years. While other directors have left under clouds, it is the first time in the CIA’s 65-year history that the nation’s top spy has lost his job over adultery.
Petraeus, who turned 60 on Wednesday, said in his statement, which the CIA made public, that he went to the White House on Thursday to seek Obama’s permission to resign.
He didn’t comment on the status of his marriage to his wife, Holly, who worked closely with military families while he was on active duty and now handles veterans’ financial matters in the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. They met while Petraeus was a cadet at U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., where her father was the academy superintendent.
The precise circumstances that prompted Petraeus to make his adultery public and to resign weren’t immediately known. But his statement indicated that the affair was recent. Keeping it secret could have become a potentially crippling security breach had a foreign power learned of it and used it to try to compromise or blackmail Petraeus.
If he committed adultery while in the Army, Petraeus could have been court-martialed.
Petraeus has been at the center of a political storm over a Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate and the CIA station in Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi since it emerged last week that two of the four Americans who were killed were former Navy SEALs on contract to the CIA as security officers. The U.S. ambassador to Libya and another State Department employee also died.
A former aide to Petraeus who’s known the general for two decades said he’d exchanged emails with him since the scandal broke, and that Petraeus was adamantly against news of his resignation being spun into a conspiracy theory involving the Benghazi tragedy.
“The general insists that he felt this was the right thing to do,” said the former aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. “He insisted that this has nothing to do with Benghazi, nothing to do with Libya, nothing to do with his relationship with the president. Actually, the president took 24 hours to decide on the resignation.”
In a statement confirming Petraeus’ departure, Obama made no reference to the reason for the resignation. He said that the retired four-star general “has provided extraordinary service to the United States for decades. 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.”
As CIA director, Obama added, Petraeus “has continued to serve with characteristic intellectual rigor, dedication and patriotism. By any measure, through his lifetime of service David Petraeus has made our country safer and stronger.”
Obama tapped the agency’s deputy director, Michael Morrell, a career intelligence officer, as acting director until a replacement for Petraeus is found.
Petraeus wasn’t among the top officials who were expected to resign after Obama won re-election Tuesday to a second four-year term. His departure will force Obama to devote unexpected time and energy to finding a new CIA chief as quickly as possible as the agency grapples with a host of difficult challenges, from the Iran nuclear crisis and the Syrian civil war to the war in Afghanistan, and drone operations against al Qaida and allied Islamists in Pakistan and the Middle East.
“I am completely confident that the CIA will continue to thrive and carry out its essential mission, and I have the utmost confidence in Acting Director Michael Morell and the men and women of the CIA who work every day to keep our nation safe,” Obama said.
In an unusual statement, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., said that she’d wished that Obama had rejected Petraeus’ resignation request, although she added that she understood and respected the president’s decision to accept it.
“At CIA, Director Petraeus gave the agency leadership, stature, prestige and credibility both at home and abroad,” Feinstein said. “On a personal level, I found his command of intelligence issues second to none. He was especially cooperative with Congress.”
Petraeus’ sudden and steep fall was devastating for a generation of young officers he personally mentored.
The former aide said he’d received a stream of emails from other former staff members and veterans of Petraeus’ former unit, the 101st Airborne Division, all dismayed but voicing support. He read excerpts from the messages: “We’d gladly follow him anywhere,” one loyalist wrote; another offered, “I’d punch a fool in the face to defend P4,” a nickname that referred to Petraeus’ four stars.
“My impression is, he’s taking a beating, but he’s still the same guy I’ve known for 25 years,” the former aide said. “What he’s done is horrible, and there’s no excuse. But he feels he’s doing the right thing by resigning.”
Petraeus, from Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y., graduated in the top 5 percent of his West Point class in 1974, and married his wife two months later. They have two children.
His Army career centered on assignments in light infantry units, but he also earned graduate degrees at Princeton University. He saw combat for the first time in the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, serving as the commander of the 101st Airborne Division during the V Corps drive on Baghdad.
He oversaw the region around the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, where he developed a campaign that combined combat operations with economic and political reconstruction that curbed the Sunni Muslim insurgency and led to his appointment on his return to the United States to rewrite the Army’s counterinsurgency manual.
In February 2007, President George W. Bush sent Petraeus back to Iraq as the top U.S. commander to oversee a surge of U.S. forces as part of a strategy to crush the growing Sunni insurgency and to prepare the way for the beginning of the U.S. troop withdrawal.
In October 2008, Petraeus took charge of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as the commander of U.S. Central Command. Obama then sent him to Afghanistan in June 2010 as the top U.S. commander. He developed the effort to train Afghan security forces and oversaw a surge of 33,000 U.S. troops into the Taliban’s southern heartland before departing in July 2011 and returning to the United States to retire from the Army and take charge of the CIA.
Across party lines, lawmakers praised Petraeus as a patriot who leaves a legacy of four decades of service to the country. They lamented his resignation as a loss for the intelligence community and the nation.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said in a statement that Petraeus is “one of America’s most outstanding and distinguished military leaders and a true American patriot.”