The David Petraeus scandal, explained

Who knew what and when? Scandal engulfs Gen. John Allen too. And what’s up with the shirtless FBI agent?

David PetraeusGen. David Petraeus, before his retirement from the Army in August 2011. Flickr/hectorir

Late last week, David Petraeus—a retired Army general revered for his roles in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars—resigned as director of the Central Intelligence Agency after revealing that he’d had an affair with his biographer. It soon emerged that the FBI had been investigating Petraeus’ paramour for months, eventually stumbling across their relationship. Read on for answers to all your questions about this surprising and confusing case, or click here to jump to the latest update.

Wait—who did what, now? Petraeus, who at different points in the past decade oversaw the Iraq War, Afghanistan, and the CIA’s drone program, engaged in an affair with Paula Broadwell, an Army Reserve officer and commentator on military affairs. The two met in 2006, when Petraeus addressed Broadwell and her graduate school colleagues at Harvard. Two years later, she began a Ph.D. in war studies and started to compose a book-length analysis of Petraeus’ wartime leadership. He eventually granted her unfettered access, including lodgings on his Kabul base when he took control of the war in Afghanistan in 2010.

Broadwell’s access continued after Petraeus retired from the Army and took over at the CIA in late summer of 2011. Her research culminated in an glowing biography titled All In: The Education of David Petraeus, which was released earlier this year. According to news reports, sources close to Petraeus insist that the affair began after he left the Army; if it began before then, he (and Broadwell) could potentially be prosecuted for adultery under the military’s legal codes.

How did all this come to light? According to the Wall Street Journal,  the affair was discovered several months ago by FBI agents  investigating harassment allegations against Broadwell. She reportedly  used an anonymous email account last May to send threatening emails to a  Florida woman, Jill Kelley. Kelley is a family friend of Petraeus who  volunteers as an event planner at MacDill Air Force base, the Tampa  installation where Petraeus was based when he ran the US Central Command  from 2008-10. The emails reportedly accused  Kelley, 37, of an inappropriate relationship with Petraeus. Kelley  voiced her concerns to a personal friend who was an FBI agent, according  to the New York Times, and the FBI began an investigation of the emails.

That inquiry quickly led agents to suspect Broadwell of sending  the messages, and they secured a warrant to search her personal email,  discovering intimate details of her affair with Petraeus. By late  summer, they had learned that the CIA director had been using a Gmail  account under a pseudonym to communicate with Broadwell, and they  informed Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller of  the probe. Law enforcement officers began to investigate whether any  sensitive or classified information had passed between the two lovers. (According to the Journal, federal agents are obligated by Justice Department policy not to share information with Congress and the White House on criminal investigations until they are completed.)

In  late October, FBI officials interviewed Broadwell and Petraeus, and both  separately admitted to the affair, though they stressed that they  hadn’t shared any classified data. Satisfied, the agents briefed James  Clapper, the director of national intelligence and a friend of  Petraeus, on the probe at 5 p.m. on November 6, Election Day.  Clapper reportedly  advised Petraeus to resign the next day. President Obama was informed  of the matter Thursday, and Petraeus offered his resignation in the  Oval Office. Obama accepted it the following day.

Is this part of an Obama administration conspiracy to cover up what happened in Benghazi? Probably not, although the timing has prompted a full-blown eruption in the right-wing fever swamp, as this New Republic compilation shows. Here’s a sample tweet of the Petraeus-Benghazi hysteria from conservative pundit Laura Ingraham:

POST-ELECTION INFO. DUMP: Did Petraeus delay resig. until after election?  Imagine if voters knew truth abt Benghazi pre-election?

Petraeus was slated to testify before a congressional panel later  this week on what the CIA knew about the September 11 attack on  US installments in the Libyan city of Benghazi, which resulted in the  death of US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other American personnel.  Now Petraeus reportedly will not be testifying; acting CIA Director Michael Morell will go in his place.

There is, however, an odd Libya-related twist in the story: In late  October, Broadwell gave a lecture at the University of Denver in which she asserted  that the CIA “had taken a couple of Libyan militia members prisoner and  they think that the attack on the consulate was an effort to try to get  these prisoners back.” She added, “That’s still being vetted.” It’s  possible that she had gotten this info from Petraeus—she noted in the  same breath that “the challenging thing for General Petraeus is that in his  new position he’s not allowed to communicate with the press. So he’s  known all of this.” The CIA, however, denies  that it ever held any prisoners at Benghazi. The CIA could be  expected to deny such an assertion even if it was true. Hence it’s  unclear whether Broadwell was sharing privileged intelligence or merely  passing on bum info from another source, though Fox News today reported that her assertion might have some credence.

What is Petraeus so famous for, anyway? Perhaps no single American came out of the “war on terror” with as  stellar a public reputation as David Petraeus, a Princeton Ph.D. whom the  media credited with “saving” the debacle in Iraq, revolutionizing the military, and giving interviews while running six-minute miles  at age 60. But the general cultivated much of this legendary status  with shrewd moves—distancing himself from negative news and strategic  setbacks, limiting media access to only preferred journalists,  and taking credit for popular wartime trends. Military officers and  reporters perpetuated what some are in hindsight calling the “cult of Petraeus,”  one that was used by successive presidential administrations to give  their own strategic decisions greater sway with the public.

“[A]ll the profiles, stage-managed and controlled by the Pentagon’s  multimillion dollar public relations apparatus, built up an unrealistic  and superhuman myth around the general that, in the end, did not do  Petraeus or the public any favors,” writes Buzzfeed‘s Michael Hastings, whose reporting got Afghanistan War General  Stanley McChrystal fired two years ago and who has been critical of  Petraeus in the past.

Who is Paula Broadwell? Broadwell, 40, is a married mother of two, a fitness fanatic who graduated from West  Point (Petraeus’ alma mater) and holds an Army Reserve commission as an  intelligence officer. She has two master’s degrees and is currently  working towards a doctorate in war studies from King’s College London. A successful writer and lecturer, Broadwell has garnered criticism for her sunny portrayal of the military’s operations in Afghanistan while working there with Petraeus. Most notably, in 2011 she praised the actions of a Petraeus subordinate who ordered the complete leveling of a village called Tarok Kolache, offering chilling before-and-after photos as evidence of the operation’s success.

Joshua Foust, an expert on Afghan counterinsurgency with the American  Security Project, wrote months before the affair was revealed that  Broadwell’s take on Tarok Kolache invalidated her bio of  Petraeus. “[W]hen the one tiny bit of Broadwell’s story that I’m aware  of is riddled with such half-truths, spin, and outright deception about  what really happened, how can I possibly trust her and her co-author to  tell the rest of David Petraeus’ career (and his vaunted leadership  skills) honestly?” he stated last February.

Nevertheless, in their zeal to sympathize with Petraeus, the media and  military officers are now pushing a negative portrayal of  Broadwell as an unbalanced femme fatale. One unnamed officer close to  Petraeus said the biographer “got her claws into him,” conservative blogger Robert Stacy McCain has called her “The Slut Paula Broadwell,” and even the Washington Post made hay of Broadwell’s supposed “tight shirts and pants,” concluding that Petraeus “let his guard down” around the younger woman.

What’s the big deal? Washington bigwigs cheat all the time. Why should Petraeus lose his job over it? There  is still the possibility that Broadwell got previously secret CIA info  via her relationship with Petraeus. (See the Benghazi-related question  above for more details on those allegations.) But even if that’s not the  case, it’s an astonishing breach for the man hired as America’s top  secret-keeper. As the editors of Wired‘s Danger Room blog put it,  “not only did Petraeus conduct an affair that could conceivably open up  the CIA director to blackmail, he exhibited poor data security, setting  up a pseudonymous email account to correspond with his paramour—one  that the FBI easily traced back to him using the breadcrumb trails of  Gmail metadata.”

Does this have anything to do with that New York Times advice column? Soon  after news of Petraeus’ resignation broke last week, rumors spread that  Broadwell’s husband, a prominent North Carolina doctor, had written a letter to Chuck Klosterman’s “The Ethicist” column published in the July 13 issue of the New York Times Magazine.  “My wife is having an affair with a government executive. His role is  to manage a project whose progress is seen worldwide as a demonstration  of American leadership,” the letter’s author wrote, seeking advice on  how to discuss the affair with his wife. Tantalizing though it may be,  the letter is unrelated to Broadwell, according to Times Magazine editor Hugo Lindgren. The Ethicist column “is NOT about the Petraeus affair, based on our factchecking,” Lindgren tweeted last Saturday night. “Strange, I know.”

So the FBI can read your email based on a harassment complaint? One  eyebrow-raising aspect of the case is that, based on Kelley’s complaints  about harassing emails, the FBI undertook a sophisticated probe of the  address from which the emails originated, traced that account to  Broadwell, and secured a warrant to investigate her other email  accounts. As Business Insider‘s Nicholas Carlson puts it:

The lesson (other than that you should not have an affair and that  you should not spend lots of time alone with someone you find  attractive) is one all of us already know, but everyone seems to forget:  Your emails are not as private as you think, and as soon as you send  them, they exist forever, waiting to be discovered by someone you do not  want reading them. The same goes for your text messages, by the way.  Just ask Tiger Woods.

Kelley’s volunteer role as an event organizer at MacDill Air Force base hardly qualified her for routine federal protections, so it’s unlikely that the FBI ever would have tracked down her email harasser if she hadn’t had a friend in the bureau. Perhaps the lesson is not to cross anyone who’s got those kinds of connections.

Update 9 p.m. PST, Monday, November 12th: In a twist straight out of a Coen brothers movie: It now turns out that the FBI agent is being investigated for his own bizarre actions. To start with, as the Wall Street Journal first reported, he took up Kelley’s complaint with an ardor best explained by the fact that he had previously sent her pictures of himself, shirtless.

The FBI agent who started the case was a friend of Jill Kelley, the  Tampa woman who received harassing, anonymous emails that led to the  probe, according to officials. Ms. Kelley, a volunteer who organizes  social events for military personnel in the Tampa area, complained in  May about the emails to a friend who is an FBI agent. That agent  referred it to a cyber crimes unit, which opened an investigation.However, supervisors soon became  concerned that the initial agent might have grown obsessed with the  matter, and prohibited him from any role in the investigation, according  to the officials. One official said the agent in question  sent shirtless photos to Ms. Kelley well before the email investigation  began, and FBI officials only became aware of them some time later.  Eventually, supervisors told the agent he was to have nothing to do with  the case, though he never had a formal role in the investigation, the  official said.

Oh, but it gets worse. Over to you, New York Times:

The agent, who was not identified, continued to “nose around” about  the case, and eventually his superiors “told him to stay the hell away  from it, and he was not invited to briefings,” the official said. The  Wall Street Journal first reported on Monday night that the agent had  been barred from the case. Later, the agent became convinced — incorrectly, the official said —  that the case had stalled. Because of his “worldview,” as the official  put it, he suspected a politically motivated cover-up to protect  President Obama. The agent alerted Eric Cantor, the House majority  leader, who called the F.B.I. director, Robert S. Mueller III, on Oct.  31 to tell him of the agent’s concerns.

And, the FBI’s stellar performance to date did not stop it from searching Broadwell’s house this evening.

Update, 10:21 PST, Monday, November 12th: In a truly Pentagon rocking development, The Washington Post has reported that the scandal has now engulfed Gen. John R. Allen, the commander of US and  NATO troops in  Afghanistan.

According to a  senior U.S. defense official, the FBI has uncovered  between 20,000 and 30,000  pages of  “potentially inappropriate”  emails  between Allen and Jill Kelley, a 37-year-old Tampa woman whose close   friendship with Petraeus ultimately led to his downfall. Allen, a  Marine,  succeeded Petraeus as the top allied commander in Afghanistan  in July 2011. The FBI first  notified the Pentagon of its investigation into  Allen’s communications with  Kelley on Sunday evening, according to the  senior defense official who spoke on  condition of anonymity to discuss  details of the ongoing case. In response,  Pentagon chief Leon  E. Panetta referred the investigation to the Defense  Department’s  Inspector General for further review, according to a statement  released  by Panetta early Tuesday as he was traveling to Australia.

Ok, where to begin? Well, to start with, Gen. Allen had been tapped by the White House to take over  as chief of the  military’s European Command and NATO’s Supreme Allied  Commander in Europe. Yeah, that’s probably not going to happen. And then there’s the scandal itself. If the allegations of an affair between Allen and Kelley turn out to be true, is it likely that Broadwell knew of it? And that Kelley knew who the harrassing emails she received likely came from? And was “shirtless agent” (as he’s now called on twitter) just a dupe in what sounds like something out of a Days of Our Lives or Gossip Girl?  All we know is what started out as a love triangle has now got so many sides we can’t even call it a love pentagon. Love dodecahedron? Developing…

Adam Weinstein is Mother Jones’ national security reporter.

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