Washington was in shock yesterday after the sudden resignation of CIA Director David Petraeus, a former US commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, handing another major challenge to US President Barack Obama just three days after his re-election.
Petraeus said he resigned over an extramarital affair, bringing an ignominious end to a highly praised military and government career. It also came shortly before he had been due to testify in Congress on the agency’s alleged failure to protect a US consulate in Libya from a deadly attack.
“After being married for over 37 years, I showed extremely poor judgement by engaging in an extramarital affair,” the CIA director said in a message to staff, released to the media on Friday.
Obama, in a written statement, acknowledged Petraeus’ departure, praising his “intellectual rigor, dedication and patriotism.”
However, at the same time, he expressed confidence that the CIA “will continue to thrive and carry out its essential mission” without the famed general.
The president, fresh off his electoral triumph, reportedly had no inkling that the CIA chief was about to resign until Thursday morning.
When he met with Petraeus later that day, Obama refused to accept the resignation straight away, saying he would think about it overnight, the New York Times said.
However, in the end, Obama concluded he could not push Petraeus to stay on, the Times reported.
Michael Morell, Petraeus’ deputy at the spy agency, will serve as acting director, but there were indications he might be only a temporary choice.
Speculation on a possible successor has focused on John Brennan, the White House counter-terrorism adviser and CIA veteran who has played an instrumental role in Obama’s drone war against al-Qaeda militants.
Neither Petraeus nor the CIA explained exactly why he felt he had to step down over the affair, and whether his liaison presented a purely personal problem or raised security issues in his sensitive work as CIA director.
The affair came to light as the FBI was investigating whether a computer used by Petraeus had been compromised, the New York Times and other US media reported, citing government officials.
NBC News and other media reported the FBI was investigating Paula Broadwell, co-author of a favorable biography of Petraeus, All In: The Education of David Petraeus, for possible improper access to classified information.
Unnamed officials told the New York Times that Petraeus’ lover was Broadwell, a former US Army major who spent long periods interviewing Petraeus for her book. She offered no public comment on the revelations.
Experts said that if Petraeus, a four-star general who retired to take the CIA job, had committed adultery while still in the army, he could have been court-martialed.
The resignation comes amid criticism in some quarters of Petraeus over his response to the deadly attack in September on the US consulate in Benghazi, which killed the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans.
Intelligence officials have defended Petraeus and his officers over the incident, saying the CIA moved swiftly to rescue the Americans under attack at the Benghazi compound.
The most celebrated military officer of his generation, Petraeus, 60, took over at the CIA a little over a year ago.
He was credited by some with rescuing a failing US war effort in Iraq in 2007, after then-US president George W. Bush ordered a surge of troops into the country.
Obama later turned to him to lead a similar surge of US forces in Afghanistan in 2010, leaving a top post as commander of all US forces in the Middle East to do so.
However, Obama chose not to promote Petraeus to the US military’s top job as chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, as White House officials remained wary of the media-savvy general who had pushed for more troops and more time in the Afghanistan war.
However, his military background sometimes clashed with the intelligence agency’s culture and there was some friction with the congressional committees that oversee the spy services.