President Barack Obama said Wednesday he has not seen assessments that indicate classified information disclosed in the sex scandal involving CIA director David Petraeus compromised United States security.
"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 said in his first press conference since the Nov. 6 election and his first in eight months.
The president praised Petraeus for his "extraordinary career." The CIA director resigned suddenly Friday after a FBI cyber stalking investigation uncovered a covert extramarital affair with former Army officer Paula Broadwell.
Obama said that Petraeus resigned because he believed his behavior "did not meet the standards that he felt were necessary as the director of CIA with respect to this personal matter that he is now dealing with his family and with his wife."
"And it's on that basis that he tendered his resignation, and it's on that basis that I accepted it," Obama said.
Asked why the affair and the FBI probe were kept secret until after the election, Obama referred questions to the FBI and its "protocols" for "what started off as a potential criminal investigation."
The president said one of the challenges is that "we're not supposed to meddle in, you know, criminal investigations, and that's been our practice."
Obama said he would withhold judgment on the FBI notification process that kept the probe secret. But he said he has confidence in the FBI, which has come under fire for its handling of the cyber stalking probe that forced the resignation of his CIA director and derailed the nomination of the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, to be NATO commander.
"What I'll say is that … 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? So, you know, I think it's best right now for us to just see how this whole process unfolded," Obama said.
Petraeus used a covert email address to communicate with Broadwell and had an unclassified Internet connection added to his CIA headquarters office, raising concerns about the possible compromise of his communications.
U.S. officials have said the FBI concluded its probe into anonymous emails sent from Broadwell to Tampa socialite Jill Kelley before Nov. 6 but did not notify the president until after Election Day.
Only a few questions were directed at the president for the administration’s mishandling of security at the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi that was attacked by al Qaeda-linked terrorists on Sept. 11. U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens was among four Americans killed in that attack.
Obama bristled at a question about Sens. John McCain’s (R., Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham’s (R., S.C.) promise to block any nomination of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice to be secretary of state should current secretary Hillary Clinton step down.
Obama defended Rice, who told Sunday news talk shows days after the Sept. 11 Benghazi attack that the raid was the result of a spontaneous demonstration over a video and not a terror attack.
"If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me," a visibly angry Obama said. "And I'm happy to have that discussion with them. But for them to go after the U.N. ambassador, who had nothing to do with Benghazi and was simply making a presentation based on intelligence that she had received and to besmirch her reputation is outrageous."
The president noted that "we’re after an election right now" and it’s important to find out what happened in Benghazi. "And I'm happy to cooperate in any ways that Congress wants," he said. "We have provided every bit of information that we have, and we will continue to provide information. And we've got a full-blown investigation, and all that information will be disgorged to Congress."
"We’ve got to get to the bottom of it, and there needs to be accountability" when four Americans are killed, he said.
"We've got to bring those who carried it out to justice. They won't get any debate from me on that," Obama said. "But when they go after the U.N. ambassador, apparently because they think she's an easy target, then they've got a problem with me."
McCain rejected the argument that Rice was being unfairly attacked.
"My judgment at this time is that four Americans were killed, and the information that our U.N. ambassador conveyed was clearly false," McCain said in a press conference after the president’s remarks.
"We owe the American people and the families of the murdered Americans a full and complete explanation, which for two months the President has failed to deliver," said McCain.
"We're not picking on anybody," McCain said in remarks on the Senate floor.
Obama said that if he determines Rice is the best person to lead the State Department, "then I will nominate her," but that a decision on the post has not been made.
Asked what the president would say to the families of those killed in Benghazi over the apparent failure of the administration to mount a rescue force for the besieged compound, Obama said, "I'll address the families directly, as I already have" and not through the press.
"But, as I said repeatedly, if people don't think that we did everything we can to make sure that we saved the lives of folks who I sent there, and who were carrying out missions on behalf of the United States, then you don't know how our Defense Department thinks or our State Department thinks or our CIA thinks," he said. "Their number one priority is obviously to protect American lives. That's what our job is."
Pressed for an answer on why there was no U.S. rescue force dispatched to Benghazi, Obama said, "I can tell you that immediately upon finding out that our folks were in danger, that my orders to my National Security team were do whatever we need to do to make sure they're safe."
On Iran, the president repeated earlier assertions that he would not allow Iran to "get a nuclear weapon" and that there is still time to resolve the dispute over Iran’s illicit uranium enrichment through diplomacy.
He promised to seek a "dialogue" with Iran in the coming months on the nuclear issue and noted that "there should be a way in which they can enjoy peaceful nuclear power while still meeting their international obligations and providing clear assurances to the international community that they're not pursuing a nuclear weapon."
Asked if the United States would arm Syria’s rebels, Obama said the situation in the country had deteriorated and that the United States is engaged with regional powers in helping the opposition.
He warned that "we have seen extremist elements insinuate themselves into the opposition."
"And you know, one of the things that we have to be on guard about, particularly when we start talking about arming opposition figures, is that we're not indirectly putting arms in the hands of folks who would do Americans harm or do Israelis harm or otherwise engage in actions that are detrimental to our national security," he said.