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Suspicions fueled by FBI’s lengthy silence

How could Petraeus be probed without his boss knowing?

“Men in general judge more from appearances than from reality,” Machiavelli said, and so theories behind David Petraeus’ resignation as CIA director abound.

Was news of his extramarital affair kept secret until last week so as not to harm President Obama’s reelection chances? Is Petraeus’ resignation a way for him to avoid answering questions about the killings in Benghazi, Libya?

The apparent failure of the FBI and the Department of Justice to tell anyone about the investigation for several months naturally raises these sorts of questions and many others. The first strikes us as far more legitimate than the second.

The FBI began investigating the case early last summer, and by late summer knew Petraeus was involved. And yet no one told Petraeus’ boss, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, until months later – at 5 p.m. on Election Day, to be precise. The FBI says it was investigating whether national security had been compromised but never briefed leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees. And, apparently, Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller III, who meet with Obama regularly, knew what was going on with one of the most important individuals in the administration but did not tell the president.

The law requires that both Congress and the director of national intelligence be informed “in a timely manner” about “significant intelligence activities.” What is “significant,” however, is left to the discretion of an agency’s director (in this case Mueller).

A 2006 national intelligence directive suggests a few criteria that might apply here: “Important developments that affect intelligence programs, projects or activities and that are likely to be of congressional concern because of their substantial impact on national security or foreign policy;” or “significant misconduct by an employee … that is likely to seriously affect intelligence activities or otherwise is of congressional concern…;” or “major intelligence activities that pose a substantial risk of appearing in the domestic or foreign public media other than as an official dissemination.”

That’s a mouthful, but common sense tells you that anything that might directly lead to the CIA director’s resignation might be of congressional concern. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, rightly argues that being informed allows her and other intelligence leaders to fulfill their oversight function.

Questions remain about how classified documents ended up on the computer of Petraeus’ mistress, Charlotte’s Paula Broadwell. As it turned out, FBI officials say national security was not compromised and Petraeus’ email had not been hacked. But those were possibilities, and most of the leaders of the nation’s intelligence apparatus had no idea.

Given that fact, this bombshell dropping hours after the presidential election raises suspicions, fairly or not.

The idea that Petraeus’ resignation is designed to avoid testifying before Congress about Benghazi is a stretch. Congress can still order him to appear, and should do so.

FBI and CIA leaders will meet with congressional intelligence committee leaders on Wednesday. It’s about time, and about time for some answers.

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