Thursday, November 15, 2012

Obama plays down Petraeus scandal

WASHINGTON, November 15, 2012

President Barack Obama made his first public comments on Wednesday on the growing scandal around two of the country's most well-known generals, saying, "I have no evidence at this point that classified information was disclosed that in any way could have any impact on our national security."

Meanwhile, legislators dug into the tangled tale of emails that exposed one general's career-ending extramarital affair and the other's questionable relationship with a Florida socialite. Their question — Was national security threatened?

David Petraeus, who resigned as head of the CIA on Friday after admitting an extramarital affair with his biographer, had been set to testify this week before Congress on the September 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which the U.S. ambassador was killed.

Gen. Petraeus has indicated his willingness to testify, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Dianne Feinstein, said on Wednesday. No date for the testimony has been set, and Ms. Feinstein said the testimony will be limited to the Benghazi attacks.

The 60-year-old Gen. Petraeus, whose highly respected career as the top U.S. commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, led some to speculate on a run for President, has expressed regret over the affair with Paula Broadwell. U.S. officials say the 40-year-old Ms. Broadwell sent harassing, anonymous emails to a woman she apparently saw as a rival for Gen. Petraeus' affections. That woman, Jill Kelley, in turn traded sometimes flirtatious email messages with current Afghanistan commander Gen. John Allen, possible evidence of another inappropriate relationship.

Word surfaced on Wednesday that Ms. Kelley's pass to enter MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, for which she had served as a kind of informal social ambassador, had been indefinitely suspended. Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Steven Warren said she can still enter the base but now must report to the visitor centre and sign in like anyone else.

As for Gen. Petraeus, Mr. Obama said he did not want to comment on the specifics of the investigation, and he said he hoped the scandal would be a "single side note" in the retired general's otherwise extraordinary career.

Mr. Obama brushed aside questions about whether he was informed about the FBI investigations that led to the disclosures quickly enough. "I have a lot of confidence generally in the FBI, and they have a difficult job," he said. "It's best right now for us to see how this process unfolds."

FBI Director Robert Mueller and his deputy Sean Joyce met with Ms. Feinstein and the House Intelligence Committee. Acting CIA Director Michael Morell went before the House panel next.

The legislators are especially concerned over reports that Ms. Broadwell had classified information on her laptop, though FBI investigators say they concluded there was no security breach.

Mr. Obama had hoped to use Wednesday's news conference, his first since his re-election, to build support for his economic proposals heading into negotiations with legislators on the so-called fiscal cliff the year-end, economy-jarring expiration of tax cuts Americans have enjoyed for a decade, combined with automatic across-the-board reductions in spending for the military and domestic programmes.

But the scandal threatens to overshadow Mr. Obama's economic agenda this week, derail plans for a smooth transition in his national security team and complicate war planning during a critical time in the Afghanistan war effort.

Gen. Allen has been allowed to stay in his job and provide a leading voice in White House discussions on how many troops will remain in Afghanistan, and for what purposes, after U.S.-led combat operations end in 2014. The White House said the investigation would not delay Allen's recommendation to Obama on the next phase of the U.S. troop drawdown from Afghanistan, nor would it delay the president's decision on the matter. Gen. Allen's recommendation is expected before the end of the year.

But Mr. Obama put on hold Gen. Allen's nomination to become the next commander of U.S. European Command as well as the NATO supreme allied commander in Europe, at the request of Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, until Pentagon investigators are able to sift through the 20,000-plus pages of documents and emails that involve Allen and Kelley.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Wednesday that he had "full confidence" in gen. Allen and looked forward to working with him if he is ultimately confirmed.

The FBI decided to turn over the Allen information to the military once the bureau recognised it contained no evidence of a federal crime, according to a federal law enforcement official who was not authorized to discuss the matter on the record and demanded anonymity. Adultery, however, is a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
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