DAVID IGNATIUS: Recipe for a witch hunt

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON – Washington superlawyer Joseph Califano once passed a message to a client being grilled by a congressional committee that read: “Keep cool in Kabul.”
The “keep cool” advice seems especially useful now that Washington’s latest set of scandals is entering the phase of congressional investigation.
When you look at the various scandals, they have a common feature: They were all driven to the surface by the fear of political exposure.
This political nexus was spotted by Jane Mayer of The New Yorker. She noted that the dominoes began to fall when a self-appointed FBI whistleblower 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. 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 had become a political football, Mueller’s deputy Sean Joyce called Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on Nov. 6. Clapper summoned CIA Director David 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 and judging from what we’ve read, all-around busybody. Last Sunday afternoon (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 open a Pentagon investigation of Allen and suspend his confirmation as the next U.S. commander in Europe.
In the aftermath of the McCarthy investigations in the 1950s, Arthur Miller wrote a play called “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.
Many members of Congress talk as if the real outrage here was that they weren’t informed earlier. Give me a break. 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.
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.
David Ignatius’ email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.