WASHINGTON -- No member of Congress knows disgraced former CIA chief David Petraeus better or has worked more closely with him than Sen. Lindsey Graham.
The South Carolina Republican and the retired four-star Army general became good friends and confidants during Graham’s unusual and frequent active-duty service as a military lawyer in Iraq and Afghanistan while Petraeus led the war efforts there. Graham is the only member of Congress to have served active duty in both wars.
While Graham was officially a lowly colonel, his status as senator gave him unusual access to Petraeus. They traveled together and the general gave Graham special assignments to help create new police and judicial systems in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The two men became each other’s best back-channel contacts for keeping abreast of progress in the wars and the political winds of Washington. They formed a mutual admiration society, with Graham touting Petraeus as a possible presidential candidate and the general bragging on Graham’s political smarts and ability to navigate Capitol Hill.
Now Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is dismayed and shocked by news of Petraeus’ extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, which compelled him to resign last week as CIA director.
“I feel sick to my stomach,” Graham told McClatchy during an interview in his Senate office.
Broadwell interviewed Graham three times about Petraeus for her book – once in Afghanistan, twice in Washington. In those interviews or in his communications with Petraeus, he had no inkling of a romantic relationship between the two.
“I was floored,” Graham said of his reaction to the affair.
Graham, who hasn’t spoken with Petraeus since news of the affair broke, feels badly for the retired general’s wife, Holly Petraeus, with whom he became close over the eight years that the senator’s relationship with her husband grew.
“I hope from a family point of view that they can get through this,” Graham said. “This is a human failing, and it happens in every area of life. As long as you have human beings running the military, running the government, running our institutions, we’re going to have human failings.”
While Graham still believes that Petraeus “has a lot to offer the country in the future,” he’s not prepared to let him off the hook for his marital infidelity.
For one, Graham is concerned by possible national security breaches in the intimate exchanges between Petraeus and Broadwell – and in separate communications between Marine Gen. John Allen, the top commander in Afghanistan, and Tampa, Fla., socialite Jill Kelley.
“With the CIA chief, you worry because of the nation’s secrets – that they would be more subject (to exposure) than to the normal person serving in government,” he said. “The problem with this case is it seems like there’s a national security component emerging now.”
Graham also knows Allen well, both from the senator’s active-duty service in Afghanistan and his congressional fact-finding trips there. Graham has drawn no conclusions about the nature of the relationship between Allen and Kelley, despite their apparent exchange of thousands of emails, some of which Pentagon officials have described as "flirtatious" at a minimum.
“I really admire him,” Graham said of Allen. “I think he’s done a good job. I’m not going to rush to judgment. He says there’s nothing untoward in the communications. So I’m going to accept that until I hear something different.”
Graham is worried that the salacious nature of the expanding scandal will overshadow a crucial cause he’s championed for two months – what really happened during the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. consulate and a related CIA annex that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans?
“My fear is that the media is going to be talking about the next (romantic) email chain and not about the requests for security (at the consulate) over months that were denied,” Graham said. Referring to a popular 1950s novel and movie and a television show of the ‘60s, he added: “My fear is that we lose focus. My big concern is that people will look at Benghazi as sort of a ‘Peyton Place’ episode. I think it’s a symptom of a greater foreign policy and national security problem.”
Graham and fellow Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire on Wednesday introduced a resolution calling for creation of a special committee to investigate the Benghazi attacks, but the initiative is not expected to gain traction as the Obama administration conducts an internal inquiry and a handful of congressional panels hold hearings on the incident.
Petraeus was scheduled to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Friday, and Graham thinks he’ll have to answer some tough questions.
“As big a fan as I am of Gen. Petraeus, he needs to answer questions about why did he tell the Intelligence Committee (in an earlier briefing) this was a riot mob a few days after the attack,” Graham said. “It makes no sense to me. How could the (CIA) annex be so unsecured given the level of threats that had been noticed for months? Why was there no plan to reinforce the consulate on September the 11th?”