President Barack Obama said Wednesday that FBI rules kept him in the dark about a sex scandal investigation until after his re-election, but his administration refused to release those rules, and a Bush-era policy on investigations included a large loophole that might have allowed notification of the White House in such a high-profile case.
In his first public comments since retired Army Gen. David Petraeus resigned Friday from the CIA over an affair with his biographer, Obama said he’d seen no evidence that national security had been compromised.
“I have no evidence at this point from what I’ve seen that classified information was disclosed that in any way would have had a negative impact on our national security,” Obama told a White House news conference. “Obviously, there’s an ongoing investigation. I don’t want to comment on the specifics of the investigation.”
In response to questions, Obama said he was not informed about the FBI investigation earlier as a matter of government policy, not any desire to keep the news bottled up until after the election.
“The FBI has its own protocols in terms of how they proceed,” Obama said. “One of the challenges here is that we’re not supposed to meddle in, you know, criminal investigations, and that’s been our practice.”
He said those policies were established at the FBI and the Department of Justice to ensure that there is no political interference in investigations.
“That’s traditionally been how we view things in part because people are innocent until proven guilty and we want to make sure that we don’t pre-judge these kinds of situations,” he said. “My expectation is that they followed protocols that they already established.”
Pressed on whether he should have been told sooner because the case involved the nation’s top spy, Obama said, “I am withholding judgment with respect to how the entire process surrounding General Petraeus came up.”
But he said that he would have faced other questions had he been told earlier.
“It is also possible that had we been told, then you’d be sitting here asking a question about why were you interfering in a criminal investigation?” he said.
The FBI began its investigation that led to the revelation of an affair between Petraeus and his biographer, Paula Broadwall, over the summer. But Obama’s director of national intelligence, James Clapper, was only told of it on Election Day. Clapper told Obama the next day.
The FBI and the Justice Department refused repeated requests for comment and for a copy of the policies that Obama cited.
One possible protocol was established during the George W. Bush administration under rules implemented by former Attorney General Michael Mukasey in 2007, aimed at averting political meddling in law enforcement matters.
“Communications with respect to pending criminal or civil-enforcement matters . . . must be limited,” Mukasey wrote in a Dec. 19, 2007, memorandum to his department’s top officials and the country’s U.S. attorneys.
“Therefore, the Department will advise the White House about such criminal matters only where it is important for the performance of the president’s duties and where appropriate from a law enforcement perspective.”
That seemed to suggest there would be cases where the FBI and the Justice Department might think it necessary to inform the White House.
Mukasey issued the guidelines following a scandal in which the Bush administration fired nine U.S. attorneys, igniting charges that they had resisted White House pressure to pursue politically motivated prosecutions.
The bulk of the charges involved allegations that Karl Rove, the former White House political director, and his aides pressed for voter fraud investigations against Democrats in the run-up to 2006 mid-term congressional elections.