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Petraeus: The serious, unanswered questions

November 12, 2012, at 5:38 PM

In three days, the saga of CIA Director David Petraeus' extramarital affair has taken more turns than a season's worth of a soap opera. But even if you find yourself gawking at the unseemly melodrama, this bizarre story raises important questions that go beyond the dirty details of the private lives of powerful people.

1. The FBI has backgrounded its version of events to several reporters, but there are still some gaps. The relationship between the FBI and the CIA is historically fraught with tension, and so one would think the FBI would take extra measures to make sure that its investigation was pure and uncompromised. Jill Kelley, the recipient of the threatening emails, complained about them to a friend who was an FBI agent. That FBI agent helped initiate an investigation. What is the threshold for getting the FBI involved in cyber harassment? What did Kelley tell the agent about her friendship with Petraeus? Did FBI supervisors decide that the identity of the alleged adulterer was sufficient enough to devote significant resources to what may turn out to be a petty case of cyber harassment?  

And when the FBI traced the metadata of the emails back to Paula Broadwell, allowing them to get a warrant to actually read the content of her e-mail, how did they discover that Petraeus and Broadwell were having an affair? Petraeus used an email address that did not identify him; presumably, the agents would have to have read a significant number of emails (outgoing AND incoming) to determine the identity of the man in question, unless Petraeus signed his emails "Dave Petraeus," which is probably not something you'd do if you were concealing your identity in the first place. More broadly, do all warrants to read email traffic permit the FBI to read INCOMING emails as well? In other words, people who corresponded with Broadwell have nothing to do with the alleged crime; in order to figure out that Broadwell was having an affair with Petraeus, agents would have had to read emails from people with no connection to the case whatsoever. Does the bureau claim this power generally? Is it standard procedure in criminal harassment cases?

2. What did Broadwell see on Facebook that prompted her to allegedly threaten the Floridian? If the CIA had seen the same things, which some reports indicate they did, why didn't they discuss the subject with Broadwell and Petraeus? At what point was the CIA's Office of Security first made aware of the allegations? What documents did the FBI find on Broadwell's computer? Were they CIA documents? Were they historical or contemporary? Why did the FBI decide not to pursue a mishandling-of-classified-information case against her? Was it because of her sensitive relationship to Petraeus? 

3. Why didn't Petraeus tell the White House that the FBI discovered his affair? Did he seriously believe that the story would be contained? Did he think that his boss (of sorts), Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, would not find his conduct censorious? Additionally, did Attorney General Eric Holder not give the White House any sort of heads-up that Petraeus was at least tangential to an FBI investigation? If not, should we praise Holder for his political independence, accuse him of not wanting to jeopardize the election, or argue that a matter potentially involving the CIA director and national security leaks is something that the White House ought to know about?

4. Petraeus's legacy has come under fresh review. A popular and charismatic leader, it is an open question whether his implementation of a counterinsurgency strategy really worked in Iraq. (The alternative case: The U.S. has turned Iraq from a Shia dictatorship into a Sunni autocracy, and had it not been for the Anbar awakening and special operations lawn-mowing, Iraq would not have seen the decline in violence that corresponded to the entrenchment of the U.S. surge forces.) Does his personal conduct have any direct bearing on his skills as a general? Did scrutiny of his personal life get a pass because Petraeus so skillfully courted the media and political elite? 

5. How did Broadwell obtain the following information about a specific piece of intelligence: "The militia members in Libya were watching the demonstration in Cairo and it did sort of galvanize their effort." Broadwell has a clearance and in theory, if she was working with the CIA on counter-proliferation or other issues, she'd be in the loop. Usually, signals intelligence is considered "Special Compartmented Information," or SCI, and is given an extra layer of security. To see it, you'd have to be read into that compartment — SI — even though the baseline classification for it could be SECRET or TOP SECRET. Did Broadwell have an "SI" ticket?  

And her tidbit is revealing. It contains information about precisely who the National Security Agency was collecting on that day; the bad guys were watching or had watched the demonstration in Cairo and were talking about it in a way that motivated their actions in Benghazi.  Talking broadly about SIGINT in Libya is one thing; describing the targets and subject matter of the intelligence is another. Who gave Broadwell this information? Is it true? Is it classified? And why did Broadwell seem to suggest that the CIA had taken people prisoner in their tiny annex, something that would make no sense in almost any version of the events given so far? (I'm guessing that she mispoke, conflating in her head the prospects that CIA operatives managed to temporarily capture some of those militants actively fighting them that day, rather than revealing any new secret CIA detention policy.)

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