The resignation of CIA Director David Petraeus has brought a sudden and unexpected end to the public career of a four-star general who led US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and was thought to be a potential candidate for president.
Petraeus admitted to an extramarital affair in tendering his resignation, which President Barack Obama accepted Friday (yesterday, NZT).
Petraeus carried on the affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell, a reserve Army officer, according to several US officials with knowledge of the situation. They spoke anonymously because they were not authorised to discuss publicly the investigation that led to the resignation.
The FBI discovered the relationship by monitoring Petraeus' emails, after being alerted Broadwell may have had access to his personal email account, two of the officials said.
Broadwell did not respond to voice mail or email messages seeking comment.
Lawmakers from both parties joined Obama in praising Petraeus. Obama said in a statement that Petraeus had provided "extraordinary service to the United States for decades" and had given a lifetime of service that "made our country safer and stronger".
CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell will serve as acting director, Obama said. Morell was the key CIA aide in the White House to President George W Bush during the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.
"I am completely confident that the CIA will continue to thrive and carry out its essential mission," Obama said.
The resignation comes at a sensitive time. The administration and the CIA have struggled to defend security and intelligence lapses before the attack that killed the US ambassador to Libya and three others. It was an issue during the presidential campaign that ended with Obama's re-election Tuesday.
The CIA has come under intense scrutiny for providing the White House and other administration officials with talking points that led them to say the Benghazi attack was a result of a film protest, not a militant terror attack. It has become clear that the CIA was aware the attack was distinct from the film protests roiling across other parts of the Muslim world.
Morell rather than Petraeus now is expected to testify at closed congressional briefings next week on the assault on the consulate in Benghazi, which occurred on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Petraeus, who turned 60 on Wednesday, has been married for 38 years to Holly Petraeus, whom he met when he was a cadet at the US Military Academy at West Point, New York. She was the daughter of the academy superintendent. They have two children, and their son led an infantry platoon in Afghanistan.
The retired general told his staffers in a statement that he was guilty of "extremely poor judgment" in engaging in the affair. "Such behaviour is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours." He said he had offered his resignation to Obama on Thursday.
Administration officials said the White House was first notified about the Petraeus affair on Wednesday, the day after the election. Obama, who returned to the White House that evening after spending Election Day in Chicago, wasn't informed until Thursday morning.
For the director of the CIA, being engaged in an extramarital affair is considered a serious breach of security and a counter-intelligence threat. If a foreign government had learned of the affair, the reasoning goes, Petraeus or Broadwell could have been blackmailed or otherwise compromised. Military justice considers conduct such as an extramarital affair to be possible grounds for court-martial.
Failure to resign also could create the perception for the rank and file that such behaviour is acceptable.
At FBI headquarters, spokesman Paul Bresson declined to comment on the information that the affair had been discovered in the course of an investigation by the bureau.
Holly Petraeus is known for her work helping military families. She joined the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to set up an office dedicated to helping service members with financial issues.
Though Obama made no direct mention of Petraeus' reason for resigning, he offered his thoughts and prayers to the general and his wife, saying that Holly Petraeus had "done so much to help military families through her own work. I wish them the very best at this difficult time."
Petraeus, who became CIA director in September 2011, was known as a shrewd thinker and hard-charging competitor. His management style was recently lauded in a Newsweek article by Broadwell, co-author of the biography "All In: The Education of General David Petraeus."
The article listed Petraeus' "rules for living". No. 5 was: "We all make mistakes. The key is to recognise them, to learn from them, and to take off the rear view mirrors - drive on and avoid making them again."
Petraeus told his CIA employees that he treasured his work with them "and I will always regret the circumstances that brought that work with you to an end."
The director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said Petraeus' departure represented "the loss of one of our nation's most respected public servants. From his long, illustrious Army career to his leadership at the helm of CIA, Dave has redefined what it means to serve and sacrifice for one's country."
Other CIA directors have resigned under unflattering circumstances. CIA Director Jim Woolsey left over the discovery of a KGB mole, and director John Deutch left after the revelation that he had kept classified information on his home computer.
Before Obama brought Petraeus to the CIA, he was credited with salvaging the US war in Iraq.
"His inspirational leadership and his genius were directly responsible - after years of failure - for the success of the surge in Iraq," Senator John McCain said Friday.
President George W Bush sent Petraeus to Iraq in February 2007, at the peak of sectarian violence, to turn things around as head of US forces. He oversaw an influx of 30,000 US troops and moved troops out of big bases so they could work more closely with Iraqi forces scattered throughout Baghdad.
Petraeus' success was credited with paving the way for the eventual US withdrawal.
After Iraq, Bush made Petraeus commander of US Central Command, overseeing all US military operations in the greater Middle East, including Afghanistan and Pakistan.
When the top US commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, was relieved of duty in June 2010 for comments in a magazine story, Obama asked Petraeus to take over in Kabul and the general quickly agreed.
In the months that followed, Petraeus helped lead the push to add more US troops to that war and dramatically boost the effort to train Afghan soldiers and police.
The Senate and House intelligence committees were briefed on Petraeus' resignation only after the news was reported in the media, said a congressional staffer, speaking anonymously because the staffer was not authorised to publicly discuss the sensitive briefings.
House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King said he regretted Petraeus' resignation, calling him "one of America's most outstanding and distinguished military leaders and a true American patriot".
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein also regretted the resignation but gave Morell high marks, too.
Morell had served as deputy director since May 2010, after holding a number of top roles, including director for the agency's analytical arm, which helps feed intelligence into the president's daily brief. He also worked as an aide to former CIA Director George Tenet.
"I wish President Obama had not accepted this resignation," Feinstein said of Petraeus, "but I understand and respect the decision".