Of generals, spies, pretty women and the FBI: The Petraeus Affair

By J Brooks Spector 14 November 2012

Aside from the troubling questions about the potential for security breaches, L’Affaire Petraeus begs the question: do these folks really have enough to do with their time? Why does the head of the CIA have the time and interest to set up a dummy email address for exchanging love letters like an adolescent schoolboy? By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Like multiple pebbles thrown into a pond, one at a time, the circles keep widening in the matter of the newly-former director of the CIA, David Petraeus. Only a few days ago, the story first broke that the universally lauded American general had tendered his resignation as CIA head after he had been told his affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, had become embroiled in an FBI investigation. With that, he had fallen on his sword (perhaps after gazing on all the Afghan swords and daggers he had just decorated his CIA office with) which President Obama then reluctantly accepted – just as he was winning his second term of office. As they say, the real life is always better than fiction.

In his stellar military career Petraeus had reconstructed US military doctrine for dealing with the continuing Iraqi insurgencies, following the chaos that had followed George W Bush’s ill-conceived war to eliminate Saddam Hussein. For his brilliance, Petraeus had been sent to Baghdad by the president to apply Petraeus’ own doctrine to make it possible for American troops to bring their involvement there to a more or less successful conclusion. In a similar way, he was then sent to Kabul, Afghanistan to recreate that approach there as well.

Recognized and honoured for his military exploits, then, as the defence establishment’s premier thinking general, and now with extensive experience in that sensitive region, he was appointed head of the CIA when that organization was increasingly involved with sussing out the implications for the US from the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

In the days that followed his resignation, however, surprises have just kept coming. The other woman (Petraeus has been married for nearly 40 years) turns out to have been the co-author of the general’s authorised, hagiographic biography. She is a former active duty military career officer now on reserve duty, a Harvard PhD student, and, just like the general, a total fitness junkie. Oh, and by the way, she is also married, with two young children (Petraeus also has two children, but, given the age differential, his are grown and one is also a career military officer).

Paula Broadwell, the biographer-paramour, and Petraeus met when she was doing research for her thesis on leadership. He gave a lecture on his leadership style – and she got the acolyte stars in her eyes, redirecting her work into a more focused biographic study of his leadership doctrine and philosophy. Petraeus, well-known and admired for his enthusiasm in mentoring younger officers and scholars, encouraged Blackwell in her studies and the two were increasingly seen together in Kabul, doing six-minute mile runs together, contemplating the art of leadership – and, apparently, followership.

Other officers in Petraeus’ command hinted that this marriage of two true minds was more than a little unseemly. That, and the fact that she kept showing up in that ultra-conservative, strict Islamic society in the kind of clothing more suitable for teenagers on a stroll through a trendy, hip district in Manhattan or London. Soon enough, he was at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and they were now more than soul mates, communicating clumsily via an arrangement whereby they shared an email address but each would leave the other little notes in that address’ draft message box – a sort of not particularly hi-tech electronic dead letter box.

In the fullness of time things became rather more interesting, complicated and destructive when Broadwell started sending rather less than veiled “go away and don’t you dare make those goo goo eyes at MY man” email messages to yet another woman, also married, one Jill Kelley, a volunteer social liaison during Petraeus’ military posting as head of the US Central Command near Tampa, Florida, after Iraq. It turns out, so far at least, that the whole business started to unravel when Kelley complained to a friend who just happened to be an FBI agent. He initiated an investigation into the troublesome, troubling and threatening emails (the ones from Broadwell to Kelley) that led him to the ones between Broadwell and Petraeus.

Photo: Jill Kelley, a friend of the Petraeus family, walks out of her home toward her car on Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa, Florida November 12, 2012. New details emerged on Sunday about the extramarital affair that abruptly ended the career of CIA chief David Petraeus, including the identity of Jill Kelley, whose complaints about harassing emails from the woman with whom Petraeus had the relationship, Paula Broadwell, prompted an FBI investigation. REUTERS/Brian Blanc

Then, as the investigation seemed to slow down a bit, at least in the mind of the original G-man, the FBI agent in question took it upon himself to contact an aide in the office of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to complain about the presumably stalled investigation. Towards the end of October, Cantor in turn spoke with the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, who then, on Election Day, finally told the White House’s Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, what was going on. Clapper had a conversation with Petraeus, and at that point the good general decided to fall on his sword – after being nudged a bit in the general direction of the honourable decision.

But this only seems to be the first act of this military-espionage version of a Georges Feydeau farce blended uneasily with a John LeCarré spy thriller. Now it turns out that the FBI agent originally was contacted by Kelley seems to have some unresolved behaviour issues. He’s under the gun now for sending pictures of himself – undressed – to yet someone else and, wait for it, the current US general heading American forces in Kabul is now being investigated for sending emails – between 20,000 to 30,000 pages worth – to Jill Kelley.

Now, so far at least, no one has alleged that Petraeus or Gen. John Allen, the current top man in Kabul, sent any secret information out into the cyber-universe in and among the pillow talk or whatever, although there are already whispers and hints that maybe Broadwell had some material she shouldn’t have had in her laptop.

There are also mutterings on Capitol Hill that this just doesn’t add up right. Why didn’t the FBI tell the attorney general’s office (its official supervising agency) earlier in the investigation, why didn’t the FBI head brief the appropriate intelligence oversight committees of Congress properly? More darkly, if Attorney General Eric Holder did know about the swamp, why didn’t he brief the White House himself earlier in the day? There are sideways, dark glances and comments about the need for hearings and witnesses to be called, especially since Republican congressmen were just about to insist David Petraeus be called to testify about the slip-ups or miscues – or worse – that had happened when the US ambassador to Libya and three others were killed in Benghazi in September. There is definitely another act to come in this drama.

The thing of it is, while it is almost impossible to prevent grown men and women (who presumably should know better than to cavort like this) from, well, cavorting like this, governments need to operate on the assumption senior officials will be acting on something other than their hormonal impulses – and that others allowed into their more secret spaces will similarly act like grown ups.

Of course someone is undoubtedly ready about now to wave about the example of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky – as if to prove such teen-aged, testosteronic behaviour is inevitable. Or that, alternatively, the treatment meted out to the good general is unfair (probably and easier sell then John Edwards’ or Newt Gingrich’s distasteful, tacky treatment of wives and girlfriends). But, that is not quite fair – the Clinton/Lewinsky thing was also visibly used as a partisan club to beat up the administration and its leader for political reasons totally unconnected to his performance as president – especially since two of Clinton’s chief Republican tormenters were canoodling around themselves.

No, the more fundamental problem seems to be more of men with real power who radiate authority and virility and who attract some women like moths to a bright flame, even as they exist simultaneously in a world where all the people around them obediently follow orders. But then they also find themselves existing in a world where all the sexual codes have gotten a thorough shaking up – as roles and signals are increasingly ambiguous for many. Under the US military’s Uniform Code of Military Justice, adultery is still classified as a crime. In this current mess, this behaviour is also taking place in a world where exciting, tantalising secret stuff is a further temptation to reveal – or be enticed into doing so, or to just be known as the possessor of same.

But all this behaviour should at least raise the niggling question about whether these folks really have enough to do with their time. If a top commander can send tens of thousands of pages of emails to someone who is not part of his chain of command, or if the head of a major intelligence agency has the time and the interest to set up a dummy email address so as to exchange love letters like an adolescent schoolboy, these folks have too much spare down time. For now, Obama is standing behind Allen, but at the minimum, this muddle has scrambled president’s plans to staff the country’s most sensitive intelligence and military positions. And it has already become a real, serious distraction from dealing with more consequential issues, even before Obama has finished savouring his electoral victory of last week. DM

Read more:

  • “The Siren and the Spook,” on The New York Times;
  • “Scandal probe ensnares commander of U.S., NATO troops in Afghanistan,” on The Washington Post;
  • “Petraeus shocked to hear of emails, associates say,” on AP;
  • “Timeline of events in Petraeus case,” on AP
  • “Motives Questioned in F.B.I. Inquiry of Petraeus E-Mails,” on The New York Times;
  • “Officials Say F.B.I. Knew of Petraeus Affair in the Summer,” on The New York Times;

Main photo: Then commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)/U.S. Forces in Afghanistan General David Petraeus shakes hands with author Paula Broadwell in this ISAF handout photo originally posted July 13, 2011. The FBI investigation that led to the discovery of CIA Director Petraeus’ affair with Broadwell was sparked by “suspicious emails” from her to another woman and Petraeus was not the target of the probe, U.S. law enforcement and security officials told Reuters on November 10, 2012. REUTERS/ISAF/Handout


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