The curious origins of the Petraeus scandal

The general reaction of official Washington to CIA director David Petraeus’ sudden resignation has been stunned amazement.  Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said “We received no advanced notice… it was like a lightning bolt.”  Many in Congress are displeased that the FBI kept its investigation of Petraeus under wraps.  This wasn’t just a bit of salacious gossip they were hoarding.  The Director of the CIA had been compromised.

How did the FBI get involved in this little drama?  The Associated Press turned its attention to Petraeus’ mistress, journalist Paula Broadwell, who authored a biography called All In: The Education of General David Petraeus.  It appears that the FBI got involved because Broadwell was harassing another woman by email, and they only learned of her affair with Petraeus by coincidence.

Broadwell used to be a very active presence in social media.  “She sent frequent updates of her accomplishments to the alumni notes of West Point, posted often on Twitter and answered question after question for flattering profiles in media as varied as her hometown newspaper in Bismarck, N.D., to Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, where she bested him in a push-ups competition,” noted USA Today on Sunday.

Her Twitter profile described her as “an author, national security analyst, Army vet, women’s rights activist, runner, skier, surfer, wife, and ‘Mom!'”  She sounds like a human dynamo – she competed in triathlons, and graduated from West Point with both academic and fitness honors.  Her well-regarded biography of Petraeus grew out of her doctoral dissertation, after the General invited her to take a front-row seat in Afghanistan.  The Wall Street Journal recalls that some of Petraeus’ staffers worried about the “appearance of impropriety” that might result from her “unusual” level of access, given her youth and relatively thin journalistic credentials.

Not surprisingly, this former supernova of Internet activity has gone completely dark since the scandal broke.  Her personal website is gone.  A big birthday bash scheduled for last weekend in D.C. was abruptly canceled.  Her last Tweet, on November 5, was a quote from one of Petraeus’ leadership maxims.  Translated from Twitter-speak, it reads, “Take performance personally.  If you’re OK to be average, so too will be your team.”

But it was a bout of excessively enthusiastic electronic correspondence that seems to have gotten her in trouble.  A military source told the Associated Press that Broadwell sent a series of harassing emails to a woman named Jill Kelley, who lives in Tampa and serves as an unofficial, unpaid “social liaison” to MacDill Air Force Base.  Kelley and her husband are described as “longtime friends of Petraeus and his wife,” and were “regular guests at events he held at Central Command headquarters.”

According to the AP source, the FBI discovered Broadwell’s affair with Petraeus while digging into her email account to investigate her harassment of Jill Kelley.  The exact content of Broadwell’s messages to Kelley has not been revealed, but the AP included a photo of the Petraeuses hanging out with the Kelleys at a parade in 2010, so readers could make an educated guess:

That’s David Petraeus in the hat.  Scott and Jill Kelley stand to the right of him in the photo.  Mrs. Petraeus stands to the right of Jill, who is roughly the same age as Paula Broadwell.  David Petraeus is 60, and has been married to Holly Petraeus for 38 years.

The Kelleys are understandably eager to avoid the media spotlight, releasing a statement on Sunday that said, “We and our family have been friends with Gen. Petraeus and his family for over five years.  We respect his and his family’s privacy and want the same for us and our three children.”  People who know both families have said Petraeus was not romantically involved with Mrs. Kelley, but perhaps Broadwell thought he was… and initiated the hostile communication that would explode into a scandal that has rocked Congress, the Administration, and the intelligence community.

Update: The New York Post has sources within the FBI that say Broadwell’s harassing emails to Kelley included messages like “back off,” “stay away from my guy,” and “I know what you did.”