Former FBI Agents Skeptical of Petraeus Probe
Monday, 19 Nov 2012 10:04 AM
Ronald Kessler reporting from Washington, D.C. — Former FBI agents who held key positions in the bureau are expressing skepticism about the timing of the investigation that led to David Petraeus being told to resign as CIA director a day after the election.
Last Thursday, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. defended the handling of the inquiry, saying it proceeded in an impartial way. Since no threat to national security was uncovered, there was no reason to inform President Barack Obama of the investigation, Holder said.
“We follow the facts,” Holder said. “We do not share outside the Justice Department, outside the FBI, the facts of ongoing investigations.”
The FBI’s probe into threatening and suspicious emails sent by Petraeus’ mistress Paula Broadwell began last spring. Around 5 p.m. on Election Day, Nov. 6, the FBI notified the executive branch of the investigation with a call to Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr.
Holder said a “critical interview” on Friday, Nov. 2, with Broadwell dictated when the president would be notified. Holder did not explain why the interview happened to be scheduled four days before the election rather than earlier.
As noted in my story "FBI Suppressed Petraeus Scandal to Protect President," I was contacted on Oct. 10 by a longtime FBI source who told me that a bureau investigation had uncovered Petraeus’ affair and that it could potentially jeopardize national security. The veteran agent said that FBI agents assigned to the case were outraged by what senior officials told them: The FBI was going to hold their findings in limbo until after the election.
“The decision was made to delay the resignation apparently to avoid potential embarrassment to the president before the election,” the FBI source told me. “To leave him [Petraeus] in such a sensitive position where he was vulnerable to potential blackmail for months compromised our security and is inexcusable.”
Contrary to what Holder said, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III meets at least once a week with the president and routinely informs him of highly sensitive investigations and threats. Given its ramifications, an FBI investigation of the CIA director would qualify to be at the top of that list.
An administrative subpoena would have identified the computers sending the emails, which could be traced in less than an hour, says a former FBI agent who was involved with tracking and intercepting communications.
The FBI special agent in charge of the Tampa office, where Jill Kelley complained about the harassing emails, would have signed off on the administrative subpoenas. A subpoena would be needed to obtain the content of the emails.
“Tracing the emails with an administrative subpoena could have been completed within a day,” the former agent says. “It should not have taken months. A first office agent could have done this,” referring to a new agent assigned to his first field office.
In looking for relevant material, FBI agents initially mistook a reference to “under the desk” in emails between Petraeus and Broadwell to mean a corrupt act. In fact, the reference was to their affair.
Given that the investigation involved the CIA director, “This would have gone up to the seventh floor [where top FBI executives have their offices] immediately,” a former agent says. “Once they knew what they had, I am sure everyone dropped what they were doing, and it became a very serious matter. A subpoena could have been obtained within a matter of days.”
“Why didn’t the bureau make disclosure sooner?” the former agent says. “This guy wasn’t the fish and wildlife commissioner. A lot of agents are scratching their heads. It makes the bureau look like it is hiding something.
"The idea that this took months is ridiculous. It should have taken days. While he remained in office, Petraeus could have been blackmailed. That’s why we are polygraphed every five years. What’s the easiest way to co-opt someone? Through a beautiful woman.”
Former agents universally describe FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III as a man of integrity who would not go along with anything illegal or improper.
In my book “The Secrets of the FBI,” I describe Mueller as having successfully turned the FBI around to make it a powerful weapon against terrorism. At the same time, no abuse has ever been found during Mueller’s tenure. But Holder, who was calling the shots, is highly political.
He could have dictated the timing of steps taken during an investigation and apparently determined when to inform the president.
When it comes to their jobs, FBI agents pride themselves on being intensely apolitical. The idea that politics may have entered into the timing of an FBI investigation shocks them.
“Any case involving a high-profile government official would have been brought to the attention of the president,” says Oliver “Buck” Revell, a former associate director of the FBI. “If I had been there, I would have recommended telling the president. The CIA director is really at the center of the intelligence process and has access to everything.”
Given his position, Petraeus would have known of penetrations of Russian communications, bugging of foreign embassies, identities of assets risking their lives to give the U.S. valuable information on terrorists, government relocation plans in the event of nuclear war, and identities of terrorists to be killed by drones.
“A conscious decision by the attorney general to not inform the president means to me he is not fulfilling his counterintelligence and law enforcement role,” Revell says. “If he made the decision to keep it out of the election process, that was an entirely erroneous decision.”
In a Fox News Channel interview, Alberto Gonzales, President Bush’s attorney general, said he would have immediately notified the president of such an investigation.
“I would have done so because an affair by the CIA director reflects extremely poor judgment,” he said. “And I believe that the president would have wanted to know, was entitled to know, that kind of information.”
Gonzales said that since the FBI did not know immediately if there had been a security breach, it “would have been important for the president and for the administration to take appropriate steps to ensure that there would not be any damage done to national security.”
“The investigation entailed computer tracking of emails and a limited number of interviews without any extended surveillance or other investigative techniques,” says John L. Martin, a former FBI agent who was in charge of espionage prosecutions by the Justice Department for 25 years. “You are not doing those exotic things that you do in counterintelligence or criminal investigations,” says Martin, who supervised the prosecution of 76 spies. Only one of the prosecutions resulted in an acquittal.
“During the months he was left in office, Petraeus could have been blackmailed,” Martin says. “That’s something that is always taught in counterintelligence training. Foreign intelligence services are on the lookout for anything that could be used to compromise someone.
"While he may say 'I am strong enough to resist that,' the lady could be the blackmail target and told she must cooperate or his career will be ruined. Pillow talk could be extremely valuable to any enemy, including to terrorists. In the months the administration allowed him to stay in office, his actions placed the nation in potential jeopardy.”