David Petraeus running for president, with Fox News chief Roger Ailes as his campaign manager and News Corporation boss Rupert Murdoch “bankrolling” the whole operation. That, as first reported in today’s Washington Post story by Bob Woodward, was the broad strokes of an offer delivered by a Fox News contributor, on Ailes’ behalf, during a meeting with the future, and now former, CIA director in the spring of 2011.
The messenger was Kathleen T. McFarland, a Reagan administration veteran now on the Fox News payroll. She told Petraeus that the proposal came straight from Ailes’ desk.
Petraeus was uncomfortable from the start, clearly anxious about their discussion going public. He asked McFarland to confirm that their conversation was off the record and asked if anyone else was present when Ailes communicated his plan.
She is heard on the tape confirming that it’s all hush-hush.
“He is a little paranoid, so believe me, he doesn’t have anybody in that room,” McFarland says, according to the Post.
The plan, she goes on to explain, was for Petraeus to accept nothing less than the military’s top position — chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Anything else, she said, Petraeus should reject, and then six months later resign and run for president.
But Petraeus wasn’t interested. (Passed over by Obama for the JCS job, he would accept a position as the CIA’s top dog a few months later.) Here, in the Post story, he explains why:
“Tell him if I ever ran,” Petraeus said, and then laughed, “but I won’t . . . but if I ever ran, I’d take him up on his offer. . . . He said he would quit Fox . . . and bankroll it.”
“Bankroll it?” asked McFarland, who served as a senior aide to Henry Kissinger and later as a Pentagon spokeswoman in the Reagan administration.
“Or maybe I’m confusing that with Rupert,” Petraeus said.
“I know Roger, he’s done okay,” McFarland replied, “but . . . no, I think the one who’s bankrolling it is the big boss.”
“That might be it,” Petraeus said.
“Okay,” McFarland said, “the big boss is bankrolling it. Roger’s going to run it. And the rest of us are going to be your in-house.”
An odd offer, certainly – the two most powerful people in the Fox News empire offering to guide and fund, it would seem, a Republican presidential campaign — and plenty of reasons to beg off. But Petraeus has one more explanation as to why a run would be unfeasible: “My wife,” he said, “would divorce me.”
This conversation, as reported by the Post, took place before Petraeus resigned his military post. That is at least a few months before anonymous friends say he and biographer Paula Broadwell began their affair. He had, by then, already known Broadwell for about four years. They spent the bulk of their time together in Afghanistan the year before, in 2010, when she traveled with him and interviewed him for her doting book, All In: The Education of General David Petraeus.
Contacted by the Post’s Woodward for comment on the recordings, Ailes dismissed McFarland’s offer as being “way out of line.” They were just having a laugh, he said.
“It was more of a joke,” Ailes told Woodward, “a wiseass way I have.”
But Petraeus and McFarland’s conversation is not simply the now-public record of expressly private round of shady political dealmaking (or attempt at dealmaking). Earlier in their chat, Petraeus speaks about the CIA in admiring and instructive terms.
Petraeus told McFarland that he thought the CIA was ‘a treasure. . . . I think that organization is full of just heroes. Unsung heroes.’ He went on to say, ‘We’re going to be retrenching militarily.’ In contrast, the CIA and the intelligence agencies, “I think, are going to be a growth industry,’ Petraeus said.”
The role of the CIA in the American political-military milieu has come under scrutiny of late, as President Obama’s deadly drone campaign over the Afghanistan-Pakistan border draws more criticism for its officially unregulated — some say illegal — targeting of alleged militants in the mostly lawless tribal areas.
The ACLU is suing the agency now, trying to get documentation about its role in the drone program, which the administration has spoken about on a number of occasions.
“The hard question,” ACLU lawyer Jameel Jaffer told a federal appeals court at a Sept. 20 hearing, “is what is the CIA’s role and whether the CIA is actively using drones to carry out targeted killings.”
Petraeus may be gone from there now, but his year-and-a-half-old musing about its future will surely pique the interest of groups probing the spy agency’s role in executing President Obama’s policy in the region.