THE crisis over the resignation of David Petraeus reached Barack Obama's cabinet for the first time as it was claimed that the US attorney-general knew about the affair for months but kept it secret until the day of the presidential election.
Eric Holder, the head of the Justice Department, was reportedly told in the late summer that FBI agents were investigating the former CIA director's sexual relationship with Paula Broadwell, his biographer. The information was kept inside the Justice Department until last week, even though FBI agents had already discovered classified information on Mrs Broadwell's computer.
Allegations that one of the president's closest allies had known about the affair fuelled theories of a cover-up as the scandal expanded to include a second woman. Jill Kelley (37) was named as the woman whose complaints about threatening emails prompted the FBI investigation into Mr Petraeus.
Mrs Broadwell's father said yesterday that his daughter was the victim of an attempt to hide "something else entirely", while friends of Mr Petraeus suggested a link between his resignation and his scheduled appearance later this week before a Congressional committee investigating the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi.
According to the ' Wall Street Journal', Mr Holder was told of the investigation several months ago but it was not until November 6 that officials informed James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, who immediately urged Mr Petraeus to resign.
Neither the FBI nor the Justice Department has officially commented but in private briefings insisted that there was no obligation to inform the White House because it had already determined there was no breach of national security. However, when FBI agents confronted Mrs Broadwell in September they seized a computer they believed she used to contact Mr Petraeus – a former four-star general who became CIA director in 2011 – and found secret documents on it.
Mrs Broadwell (40) and Mr Petraeus (60) admitted their affair during interviews with the FBI but denied he was the source of the classified material, according to the newspaper.
The nature of the files is unknown but in a speech at the University of Denver in late October, Mrs Broadwell seemed to suggest that she was privy to insider knowledge about the attack on the Benghazi consulate. She claimed that Libyan militia members had been imprisoned in a small CIA building near the consulate, a theory that was not public at the time and has since been denied by the agency.
Any suggestion that the Justice Department kept its investigation into Mr Petraeus's affair secret to prevent it from becoming an election issue could be hugely damaging to the Obama administration.
Peter King, a Republican congressman who sits on the House intelligence committee, described the situation as a "crisis of major proportions" and the FBI had been "derelict in its duty" by not immediately informing the White House.
Paul Kranz, Mrs Broadwell's father, suggested that his daughter was being targeted as part of a broader cover-up. "This is about something else entirely, and the truth will come out," he said.
A friend of Mr Petraeus questioned the "very suspicious" timing of the resignation, less than a week before the Benghazi hearings.
"A lot of very senior people in the administration did not want him to give that evidence," the friend said. It remains unclear whether Mr Petraeus will go ahead with his evidence.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Democrat chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said there was "absolutely not" any link between the two and that the president had "no choice" but to accept Mr Petraeus's resignation. Mr Obama will face questions about the affair during a press conference at the White House today.
Mr Petraeus has not been seen since stepping down on Friday but told friends that Mrs Broadwell was his only mistress and that his wife Holly was "furious" at his infidelity after 38 years of marriage. (© Daily Telegraph, London)