The claim by Eric Holder that it was right to keep the FBI investigation of General Petraeus secret from the White House, along with Jay Carney’s claim that the White House was not informed of the investigation of the General Petraeus affair until after the election because of “FBI protocols,” doesn’t hold water. Sources are claiming in news reports that “it is long-standing FBI policy for the FBI not to brief Congress or the White House in the middle of a criminal probe that does not involve a security threat.” Holder now says that “we do not share outside the Justice Department, outside the FBI, the facts of ongoing investigations.”
But those claims by Holder and Carney are demonstrably false.
The Petraeus affair did involve a security threat, although it started out as an investigation of anonymous emails sent to Jill Kelley by Paula Broadwell, who the FBI quickly identified as Petraeus’s mistress. By having an affair with Ms. Broadwell, the head of the CIA risked being blackmailed, and his poor judgment and use of personal emails raised the possibility that he was improperly disclosing classified information to her. In fact, reports indicate that the FBI found classified information when it searched the computer of his mistress, although she claims she didn’t get it from Petraeus. She also apparently bragged about having access to classified information while researching her book about Petraeus’s work in Afghanistan.
Obviously, such an FBI protocol against disclosing criminal investigations to the White House except for those involving security concerns would not apply to this investigation. The possible security risk was posed by a senior government official who was directly briefing the president on matters of national security.
Furthermore, Attorney General Eric Holder was informed of this FBI investigation in late summer. The FBI is part of the Justice Department, not the other way around. No such FBI protocol that may apply to FBI agents or to the head of the FBI would apply to the attorney general or limit his ability to brief the president.
It is true that former Attorney General Michael Mukasey issued guidance to the Justice Department on December 19, 2007, limiting DOJ contacts with the White House regarding ongoing criminal or civil investigations. But that guidance provided that the attorney general or the deputy attorney general could communicate with the White House counsel or his deputy “where it is important for the performance of the president’s duties and where appropriate from a law enforcement perspective.” Further, national security investigations were not subject to the limitations, so long as the attorney general or his two senior aides were notified about the communications with the White House by other DOJ personnel.
Obviously, the president relies on the CIA director for security assessments and briefings on a weekly and sometimes daily basis. Can the attorney general and the White House seriously argue that the fact that Petraeus had an extramarital affair that made him subject to blackmail, and that he might have disclosed classified information to his paramour, was not important for the president to know when carrying out his duties to protect the country from national security threats as commander-in-chief?
One of the reasons for the FBI protocols and the DOJ guidance is preventing interference with criminal investigations of third parties who may have political connections with the White House or Congress. That rationale does not apply to the investigation of a high-level government official who is a direct subordinate of the president. Both the president and the National Security Council should have been immediately informed about this investigation when the security issues arose.
In fact, a long-time acquaintance who worked in the Office of the Attorney General in a prior administration told me it was inconceivable that an attorney general would not inform the White House counsel or the president that the president’s CIA director was being investigated.
It certainly was convenient for the president’s reelection campaign that information about this probe, on top of the Benghazi fiasco, did not come out as an October surprise just before the election given that members of his administration have known about it for months. But those who worry about our national security and the many threats we face around the world, including an ongoing war with terrorists who want to destroy us, should be very concerned about an attorney general and an FBI director who did not immediately inform the president that his chief intelligence officer was under investigation. Or about a president who shows no concern about the failure of his two chief law enforcement subordinates to inform him of this problem.