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David Ignatius: Recipe for a witch hunt

BY DAVID IGNATIUS Published: November 18, 2012
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Washington superlawyer Joseph Califano once passed a message to a client being grilled by a congressional committee that read: “Keep cool in Kabul.” That phrase has a certain piquancy now, but Califano simply wanted to calm the witness, slow the process a bit and get everyone to chill out.

The “keep cool” advice seems especially useful now that Washington's latest set of scandals is entering the phase of congressional investigation, righteous political indignation and public penance.

When you look at the various scandals entwined around leading national security figures, they have a common feature, which is that they were all driven to the surface by the fear of exposure. It's worth considering for a moment the way in which politics — and the rush to get out before anticipated disclosure — has driven this process and made it more damaging than it needed to be.

This political nexus was spotted by Jane Mayer of The New Yorker in a recent blog post. She noted that the dominoes began to fall when a self-appointed FBI whistle-blower went to Republican members of Congress, first Dave Reichert of Washington and then Majority Leader Eric Cantor, to warn them of a possible cover-up of the David Petraeus investigation. Cantor's staff called the office of FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, and the fat was in the fire.

Knowing that the supersensitive investigation (which apparently was then winding down) had become a political football, Mueller's deputy Sean Joyce called Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on Nov. 6. Clapper summoned Petraeus, counseled him to resign, and informed the White House. Three days later, Petraeus was gone.

Fear of political blowback also triggered the revelation that Gen. John Allen, the U.S. commander in Kabul, had been exchanging possibly inappropriate emails with Jill Kelley, the Tampa socialite, military liaison and, judging from what we've read, all-around busybody. The FBI had already reviewed Allen's emails as part of the Petraeus investigation, but on Nov. 11, the FBI decided to inform the Pentagon and turn over 20,000 to 30,000 pages exchanged between Allen and Kelley. On Monday afternoon, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta decided to go public, open a Pentagon investigation of Allen and suspend his confirmation as the next U.S. commander in Europe.

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