Ask Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, if his panel is going to investigate former CIA Director David Petraeus’s affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, and he sounds downright regretful. “This is a very tragic situation. I grieve for the guy,” Chambliss tells TIME in an interview. But the Georgia Senator says that news reports suggesting that Broadwell may have disclosed classified information in public speeches necessitate the probe. “We’ll look into that specific issue,” he says. “And there are others that give us concerns.”
Chambliss says the committee will move quickly during the lame duck session beginning this month to hold hearings into whether Broadwell was ever given any classified information, as well as to determine how she obtained the classified documents the FBI reportedly found on her computer. Both Broadwell and Petraeus denied that those documents came from the CIA director. The FBI believed them, and declined to pursue a criminal case against Petraeus. “It does seem strange that anything classified can go out in an unclassified setting,” Chambliss says, adding that the best scenario is that it was distributed unintentionally. “The worst scenario is you intended to do it. And that’s what we’ll find out.”
Chambliss said the Senate panel is still determining whether or not it will require Petraeus or Broadwell to appear before the committee. On Monday evening, the FBI was seen removing documents from Broadwell’s home – apparently with her cooperation – as the search broadens into how much, if any, secure information got out. Broadwell has hired the Washington attorney Robert Muse, an expert on congressional investigations.
Petraeus’s fall from grace also “couldn’t happen at a worse time,” Chambliss said, for the ongoing investigation into the Benghazi attack that killed four Americans on Sept. 11. Petraeus had been set to testify in closed hearings this week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. (Acting CIA director Mike Morell will now take his place.) Petraeus flew to Libya after the attack to discern firsthand what happened at the U.S. consulate there. All three committees have reserved the right to call him back if they feel it’s necessary.
Many conservative conspiracy theorists believe that the Petraeus affair is part of an Obama Administration cover-up of the Benghazi attack. Others think the Administration deliberately withheld the news of the affair until after the election in order to save Obama the embarrassment and distraction of Petraeus’s resignation.
In truth, the timing of the news did have something to do with the election. According to reports, the FBI agent who originally reported Jill Kelley’s complaint of harassing e-mails felt frustrated that the bureau did not pursue the case more aggressively. The agent, who after the initial report was not involved in the case, continued to “nose around” about the investigation, another FBI agent told the New York Times, and mistakenly became convinced — because of his “worldview,” the second agent said — that the affair was being concealed for political reasons. That drove the original agent to contact Rep. Dave Reichert, a Republican from Washington State, whom he asked to convey the information to GOP leadership. Reichert spoke with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on Saturday, Oct. 27. That same day, Cantor spoke with the whistleblower. “Cantor spoke to him and determined that the person was credible, but couldn’t verify [the information] because it came from a single source,” says Doug Heye, a Cantor spokesman. “He was concerned sensitive information had been compromised.”
After consulting counsel, Cantor directed his chief of staff to reach out to the FBI’s chief of staff. But on the following Monday and Tuesday, the federal government was closed due to Hurricane Sandy. It was Wednesday, Oct. 31 before Cantor’s office finally spoke with the FBI. Until this point the FBI, having determined no breach of security existed, had been planning to let Petraeus’s affair remain private. (Petraeus, friends of his told the Wall Street Journal, planned to remain in office.)
On Tuesday, Nov. 6, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was briefed on the issue. Clapper told Petraeus he ought to step down. Petraeus offered his resignation to President Obama, who only learned about the scandal hours before he met with Petraeus the next day. Obama slept on it, hoping to avoid losing Petraeus, but ultimately accepted his resignation on Nov. 8. The news broke the following day.
So is this the last we’ll hear from David Petraeus? Chambliss doesn’t think so. “He is a very talented man. He is a great leader and every body makes mistakes,” Chambliss says. “The determination of a strong leader is how you react when you make mistakes. I am very confident that Petraeus will come back very strong.”