A 'Milfs and Military' drama is just what America needed after such a dull election, writes Donal Lynch
'AS THEY scoured the internet for yet more juicy details about former CIA director David Petraeus's affair with biographer Paula Broadwell, Americans were reportedly horrified today upon learning that a protracted, bloody war involving US forces is currently raging in the nation of Afghanistan." Thus began The Onion's hilariously accurate summation of a story which has largely overshadowed the post-election glow for the Obama administration. But, really, who could blame Americans for only waking up to an army story that has shagging, spies, conspiracy theories, catfights and a key figure dubbed 'Agent Shirtless'? And if it all has the effect of kindling public awareness of just what is happening in the wider world, then maybe Petraeus, in a perversely roundabout way, can reclaim the mantle of statesman that once seemed his for the taking.
For now though, he's still in the doghouse. His sudden resignation, said to have "caught Obama by surprise", came as it was revealed that he had had an affair with his biographer – the high achieving and romantically territorial Paula Broadwell – and caused much sniggering at the irony that the head of the CIA, basically America's spy-in-chief, had himself been spied upon. There has been dismay among Democrats that this scandal has cast a pall over the US president's election victory. And there has also been confusion at a cast of characters that seems to grow by the day.
The latest figure to be drawn into the drama is army bigwig General John Allen – due to be appointed as Nato's supreme commander in Europe – who is being investigated for emails to a Florida socialite, Jill Kelley, that "go beyond flirtatious and can probably be described safely as suggestive", a Defense Department official said Wednesday.
It was Kelley's complaints about aggressive emails from Petraeus's mistress, Broadwell, that brought about the investigation which last week forced the CIA director from office.
Broadwell and Petraeus attempted to cover their tracks by saving emails in the 'drafts' folder of a jointly held account. And in this context the tone of much of what they wrote was "flirtatious".
The affair has followed the form of high-profile political affairs in America: a subordinate woman and powerful man. Bill Clinton had an intern, John Edwards had a campaign filmmaker, and Petraeus has a woman who wrote a book so blatantly hagiographical (and aptly named: All In) that the comedian Jon Stewart wondered whether it meant to portray its subject as "awesome or incredibly awesome". The media would love her to be a seductress. The New York Times called her a "siren" and the Washington Post noted her "form-fitting clothes", while The Daily Beast praised her "expressive green eyes". But Broadwell was also a Harvard graduate, a former homecoming queen and an accomplished athlete – she bonded with her married subject, a family man, over long runs they took together.
And she was no pushover. When another woman came on the scene – charismatic Tampa socialite Jill Kelley – Broadwell fired off a broadside to this rival broad. Under the pseudonym 'Kelleypatrol' she wrote to Kelley warning her that she needed to "take it down a notch" on the flirting front and lambasting her for "parading around the base". She also accused Kelley of groping Petraeus under a table at a function.
The emails became a campaign. Broadwell warned General Allen, who was deputy commander of the US Army's Central Command based in Tampa before he took over in Afghanistan, to stay away from Kelley, with whom he had exchanged between 20,000 and 30,000 pages of emails, many of them flirtatious. Seemingly jealous of Kelley's popularity amongst the military's top brass in Florida, Broadwell also sent similar warnings to other officers. The scandal was ignited when Kelley sent the emails she received to the FBI.
Some time after that a friend of hers, FBI agent Frederick Humphries, became involved. He pursued her cyberstalking complaint and attempted to insert himself into the investigation. In late October, Humphries became fearful that the inquiry into the source of the emails to Kelley was being stalled for political reasons and he contacted a Republican member of Congress, David Reichert, who passed the information to the Republican majority leader, Eric Cantor.
Cantor then contacted the FBI director, Robert Mueller.
Humphries became known as 'Agent Shirtless' after it emerged that he had sent a topless shot of himself to Kelley – but it was later clarified that this had been sent years ago as part of what officials described as "a tongue-in-cheek joke".
The FBI trod warily in the case – the shadows cast by the organisation's conduct under J Edgar Hoover, when it acted as a kind of secret police, are long – but it had no choice but to look into the source of the emails to Kelley. And it was during this investigation that the emails between Broadwell and Kelley were discovered, which in turn uncovered the correspondence – described as "phone sex in email form" – between Petraeus and his biographer. The investigation also revealed the role of Kelley in the intrigue that surrounded the army facility in Tampa. A former member of the general's military staff told the Washington Post that Kelley was a "self-appointed" go-between for US central command officers in Florida and Middle East government officials.
Kelley was given a White House tour and twice ate in the staff dining room after being invited by an aide, according to visitor records. Her most recent visit was on November 4, just five days before Petraeus resigned.
Officials say that there is no indication that the relationship between her and Petraeus was anything but social. She emerged from her home last week wearing a form-fitting pink dress, looking unbowed even as journalists pored over her financial records.
Of course, no Washington scandal would be complete without a conspiracy theory. Broadwell delivered the perfect one last month when she told students in Colorado that the death of the US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, in an attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, was linked to the CIA holding prisoners at a nearby facility.
"I don't know if a lot of you have heard this, but the CIA annex had actually taken a couple of Libyan militia members prisoner and they think that the attack on the consulate was an effort to get these prisoners back," Broadwell said.
The idea that Petraeus may have allowed Broadwell access to state secrets was given impetus as officials revealed on Thursday that the computer that he and Broadwell shared contained classified material. President Obama said on Wednesday that he was not aware "at this point" of any leak of damaging classified information. He said that from the evidence he had seen, nothing had been discovered by the FBI that would have "a negative impact on national security".
Not that anyone in the media seems remotely concerned by that possibility. On Friday Petraeus arrived to testify at a House Intelligence Committee hearing on the Libya attack, but it all seemed a sideshow to the chatter around his affair with his biographer. Nothing cheers a country up like a sex scandal. After an election notable for its dullness, won by a president who says all the right things, this 'Milfs and Military' drama is just what America needed.
Obama might have been right when he said: General Petraeus has done his country some service.
The damage for Petraeus was not so much the news that Mrs Broadwell was being investigated by the FBI for being in posession of classified documents (which he says did not come from him), but more the idea that a man of such allegedly iron self-control could have got involved with a woman whose harassing, haranguing emails displayed the opposite of that virtue.