A week after winning a second term, President Barack Obama faces a widening scandal within his national security team that complicates plans to reshape his Cabinet and could reverberate through decisions on the war in Afghanistan, the fight against al Qaeda and efforts to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb.
The White House sought on Tuesday to limit the fallout from an FBI probe that led to the resignation of CIA director David Petraeus because of an extramarital affair, and now involves General John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. U.S. defense officials are looking into a series of "flirtatious" emails Allen sent to a woman at the center of the Petraeus case.
White House spokesman Jay Carney rejected the notion that the scandal could undermine Americans' safety. He said Obama had confidence in Allen to continue "ably" commanding U.S. forces in Afghanistan while the investigation proceeds and expressed faith in the CIA's acting director, Michael Morell. Obama "has confidence in the military to carry out the various missions that he has asked them to carry out," Carney said.
Even so, the scandal - which comes as Obama already was preparing to fill other key vacancies in his national security team - makes for an embarrassing sendoff to the president's first post-election trip abroad, a three-nation Southeast Asia tour starting this weekend. In an attempt to stabilize his national security team and get the scandal behind him, Obama may decide to accelerate key personnel moves that could ripple through his administration.
He must pick a successor for departing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and national security adviser Tom Donilon are among those likely to get consideration. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has long been rumored to be leaving; among those mentioned as possible replacements are Kerry, Panetta's deputy Ashton Carter, and Michele Flournoy, who was Panetta's policy chief before stepping down this year. Flournoy would become the first woman to serve as America's defense chief.
Petraeus' CIA job is now open. Morell, now the acting CIA director, is likely to be a top contender for the permanent job along with John Brennan, the White House's chief counter-terrorism adviser. And if Allen's now-frozen nomination to be the top NATO commander in Europe is nixed, that could ripple through the military's hierarchy.
Quick changes could be risky, especially at a pivotal time for the troubled Afghan war effort. But they also could give Obama a chance to get fresh eyes on foreign policy and national security issues that are likely to be significant parts of his presidential legacy. "It's a ‘Rubik's Cube' of decisions to make on who sits where, and figuring out the solution is getting more complicated," said Peter Feaver, a political scientist at Duke University.
THE SCANDAL TAKES A TURN
The latest twist came on Tuesday, when it was revealed Allen was under investigation for alleged "inappropriate communication" with Jill Kelley, the Tampa, Florida, woman whose complaint about harassing emails from Petraeus biographer Paula Broadwell led the FBI to uncover the affair between Broadwell and Petraeus.
The Allen revelation threatens to fell another of the military's biggest names and suggests the controversy involving Petraeus - a retired four-star general who had Allen's job in Afghanistan before moving to the CIA last year - was far from over. Obama put on hold Allen's nomination for the coveted NATO post, for which he had been expected to win easy confirmation by the Senate.