Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Monday described the fall of CIA Director David Petraeus as "very sad" but added that Petraeus "took the right step" in stepping down in the wake of revelations of an extramarital affair.
"First, obviously, it was a very sad situation to have a distinguished career like that end in this manner," Panetta said during a flight to Perth, Australia, according to a pool report. "And my heart obviously goes out to him and his family, but I think he took the right step and I think it's important when you're director of the CIA with all the challenges that face you in that position, that personal integrity comes first and foremost."
Panetta was asked if there was evidence if there were indications that Petraeus, a former four-star army general who oversaw forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, began the affair while on active duty and if he could be prosecuted.
"You know, I don't know the answer to that," he responded. "I guess, I'm reading the papers like you are to determine just what the committees find out, what the ultimate investigation determines on that issue. We obviously are going to watch this closely to determine just exactly when that took place. But I think right now my view is let's see what the investigation turns up and what the Congress, these committees are able to determine just exactly what took place."
Senior lawmakers in Congress have sought an investigation into how the FBI, which discovered the affair over the summer, handled the situation. Asked if lawmakers should have been briefed sooner, Panetta - who served in the House from 1977 through 1993 - said it's "another issue I think we ought to look at."
"Because as a former director of the CIA, and having working very closely with the intelligence committees, you know I believe there is a responsibility to make sure that the intelligence committees are informed of issues that could affect, you know, the security of those intelligence operations," he said.
Panetta also said it is "essential" that a qualified successor to Petraeus be found.
"I think it's really important to continue to have the CIA stay on track doing the job that is absolutely essential to our national security," he said. "They have very important mission focused on intelligence and intelligence operations and I think it's very important to get someone strong and capable and dedicated to be able to continue that effort. This is a critical time to make sure that with all the threats that we're dealing with in the world, that we maintain a strong intelligence operation."