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David Ignatius: Recipe for a witch hunt

BY DAVID IGNATIUS Published: November 18, 2012
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We don't know what is in the emails, beyond some “sweetheart” language. But Panetta clearly was worried about political fallout. Allen was due to testify before Congress on Thursday and, as a senior Pentagon official explained: “If you don't inform Congress of the FBI referral, that becomes a problem.”

In the aftermath of the McCarthy investigations in the 1950s, when Americans wondered how responsible officials could have allowed such a reckless “witch hunt” that ruined reputations on the flimsiest evidence, Arthur Miller wrote a play titled “The Crucible” about the Salem witch trials of 1692. The genius of the play was that it explained how sensible early Americans could have been swept up in a process of public shaming and destruction of character.

Amazingly, many members of Congress talk as if the real outrage here was that they weren't informed earlier about the investigations of Petraeus and Allen. The idea seems to have developed that the CIA and the military work co-equally for Congress and the executive branch. They don't. They work for the president, who is commander in chief. Congress appropriates the money, and has a legitimate role in overseeing how it's spent. But the idea that these scandals demonstrate the need for greater congressional involvement in sensitive investigations is preposterous.

The day Petraeus resigned, I received an email from an Arab intelligence contact who expressed what surely has been going through the minds of many people around the world. I will quote it precisely, punctuation and all: “He needs to resign cause he has an affair? What da hell??? He is brilliant!!!! Why like this????”

Petraeus is gone, but the hunt for miscreants is still gathering force. For a reminder of why it's dangerous, take a look at “The Crucible” and the lessons of history.

WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP