WASHINGTON, November 14 (RIA Novosti) - Gen. David Petraeus resigned last week as head of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) after news of an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, became public. The announcement stunned Washington and has spiraled into a lurid tale of intrigue and power, ensnaring at least one other top US military official along the way.
The Pentagon has announced that Gen. John Allen, the top American commander in Afghanistan, is being investigated for alleged “inappropriate communications” with a Florida woman that Broadwell allegedly harassed via anonymous emails after perceiving her as a competitor for Petraeus’ affections.
As details emerge, the case has spawned a range of questions concerning the possible repercussions for Petraeus, the security of electronic communications, and the progression of the investigation—which President Barack Obama reportedly did not learn about until Nov. 8, two days after his reelection.
1. Why did the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) wait so long to inform Congress and the White House?
The FBI reportedly learned of the affair between Petraeus and Broadwell this past summer. But US law enforcement sources have said the FBI did not inform the White House and Congress about the relationship because it was uncovered as part of a criminal cyber-harassment investigation and did not have intelligence or national security implications, according to US media outlets.
The focus of the criminal investigation was Broadwell and her alleged email threats to Florida socialite and Petraeus family friend Jill Kelley, while there was no evidence indicating Petraeus was involved in illegal behavior, US media have cited government and law enforcement sources as saying.
“There would have been a clear reporting obligation if Petraeus had been implicated in criminal activity,” Steven Aftergood, an expert on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, told RIA Novosti. “But up until now, there is no sign of anything like that. Rather, he appears to have been involved in a personal indiscretion.”
Under US law, elements of the intelligence community must inform Congress of “significant” intelligence activities or intelligence failures, Aftergood noted. But what constitutes “significant” is not defined, leaving “wiggle room” for the person making that call, he said.
There will be more clarity on how to proceed the next time a similar situation crops up, Aftergood said.
“I think there was uncertainty about whether to report a case of infidelity,” he said. “The fact that it did lead to his resignation when it became public means that it was in fact significant information and, perhaps, should have been reported earlier.”
2. Could Petraeus be prosecuted for adultery under military law?
It’s possible, but highly unlikely, according to Eugene R. Fidell, who teaches military law at Yale Law School.
Adultery is a prosecutable offense under US military law, punishable by up to one year confinement, a dishonorable discharge, and “forfeiture of all pay and allowances.” And as a retired US serviceman still drawing pay, Petraeus is still subject to the American military’s Uniform Code of Military Justice, Fidell told RIA Novosti.
This means Petraeus could theoretically face prosecution by the US military for the affair, even if the relationship started after he left active duty to become head of the CIA.
But based on the US military’s record of such prosecutions, Petraeus is unlikely to be formally punished for his affair, Fidell said. Among active servicemen, such cases are rare, but they do happen, he added.
“They typically happen in combination with something else,” Fidell said. “Usually the government is angry with you for other things, and if adultery is in the picture, they’ll throw that in as well.”
A more likely—though still relatively improbable—consequence for Petraeus could be the revocation of his security clearance, which could severely limit his ability to work as a defense consultant or receive access to military briefings in his retirement, Fidell said.
3. Will the scandal impact US-led operations in Afghanistan?
With the US-led military operation in Afghanistan scheduled to come to a close by 2014, much of the world is waiting with bated breath to see whether the government in Kabul can maintain security and order after US and NATO forces withdraw.
The involvement of Petraeus and Allen in this latest scandal is unlikely to have any direct impact on US operations in Afghanistan, said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official who instructs senior US military officials on Middle East politics prior to their deployment.
The scandal, however, will “contribute to the impression—more outside Afghanistan than in—that the US military hierarchy is imploding before our eyes,” Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told RIA Novosti. “In many countries around the world, generals must surely be scratching their heads wondering what the heck the Americans are thinking.”
4. Will Petraeus still testify before Congress about the deadly attack on the US consulate in Libya?
Prior to his resignation over his affair with Broadwell, Petraeus had been scheduled to testify before US Congress on the deadly attack on a US embassy compound in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead—including the US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens.
US lawmakers are insisting that Petraeus will be called before Congress to testify despite his resignation last Friday. US Sen. Diane Feinstein, a Democrat from California who chairs the Senate’s Intelligence Committee, said that Congress must be given access to records chronicling Petraeus’ trip to Libya just weeks before he stepped down.
“We are entitled to this trip report, and if we have to go to the floor of the Senate on a subpoena, we will do just that,” Feinstein told MSNBC in an interview. “It may have some very relevant information to what happened in Benghazi.”
Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina told Fox News that Petraeus would testify either voluntarily or under subpoena.
“The fact that he’s resigned and had an affair has nothing to do with whether or not he’s going to be subpoenaed to Congress,” Gowdy said. “I hope we don’t have to subpoena a four-star general and a former CIA director. I would hope he would come voluntarily, but if he won’t, he will be subpoenaed.”
5. Did Petraeus and Broadwell misjudge the level of security offered by Gmail?
Petraeus and Broadwell reportedly used a Gmail account to write messages—many of which were alleged to be sexually explicit—to one another. They reportedly both had access to the account, and in an attempt to evade detection, they are said to have communicated by writing back and forth in the draft email box offered by the free web-based email service.
Privacy researcher Christopher Soghoian noted that in 2001, shoe bomber Richard Reid attempted to use the same “draft email ‘trick’ used by Petraeus” to disguise his communications, too. According to court documents, Reid left copies of three emails—one of which outlined to his mother what he planned to do aboard Flight 63—in his Yahoo draft email folder. “Didn’t work back then. Doesn’t work now,” said Soghoian via Twitter.
Noah Schachtman, who edits the national security blog for the technology magazine Wired, noted that free web-based email accounts are easy to hack, particularly if you use a weak password and don’t use so-called “two factor authentication,” which requires users to enter a one-time, automated code in addition to the regular password.
In the case of Petraeus and Broadwell, however, the issue was not whether the email accounts in the case were susceptible to hacking.
As part of a criminal investigation, “this was government-authorized access,” Schachtman told RIA Novosti. “And once Google or Yahoo provides that access to the FBI, there’s not much you can do to maintain your secrets.”