WASHINGTON — The probe into ex-CIA director David Petraeus’ extramarital affair has snared the top US general in Afghanistan, officials said Tuesday, as the widening scandal rippled through Washington.
The discovery of a trove of correspondence between General John Allen and the woman who led the FBI to Petraeus’ former mistress prompted President Barack Obama to put Allen’s nomination as NATO’s supreme commander on hold.
The correspondence included “inappropriate” e-mails between Allen and Jill Kelley, 37, a Florida socialite who notified the FBI when she began receiving threatening e-mails from Paula Broadwell, Petraeus’ lover and biographer.
In all, the FBI is investigating between 20,000 to 30,000 pages of Allen’s correspondence — including many e-mails to Kelley — a defence official told reporters travelling with US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta.
In a statement, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said Allen would remain in his post in Afghanistan but Obama had put off his nomination as NATO’s top military leader pending an internal Pentagon investigation.
The latest bombshell came just days after Petraeus, who preceded Allen as allied commander in Afghanistan, resigned as head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), citing the extramarital affair.
The tangled web of intrigue came to light when FBI agents, acting on Kelley’s cyberstalking complaint, traced a series of threatening e-mails back to Broadwell.
On scrutinising her online records, they found a series of sexually explicit exchanges with Petraeus confirming their affair.
The pair was interviewed separately by investigators in late October and early November but, despite reports Broadwell was found to be in possession of some classified material, no criminal charges were brought.
Petraeus had been due to testify to Congress this week on the September 11 assault in Benghazi, Libya that killed four Americans, including US Ambassador Chris Stevens and two former navy SEALs working for the CIA.
The attack, which reportedly targeted the US consulate and a secret CIA-run annex, raised questions about whether staff were adequately protected as they operated in the chaotic aftermath of last year’s Arab Spring uprising.
Now US legislators also want to know why the FBI and the justice department did not notify them or the White House sooner about the Petraeus investigation.
Petraeus took command of the CIA 14 months ago, retiring from the military after a glittering career that saw him lead the 101st Airborne, the US war in Iraq, its CentCom regional command and international forces in Afghanistan.
The retired four-star general, who presided over the 2007 troop “surge” in Iraq, is widely credited with turning the tide of the US war there, though similar efforts have been less successful in Afghanistan.
‘Regrets lack of discipline’
Two months after hanging up his uniform, Petraeus started an affair with Broadwell, a former army officer 20 years his junior who travelled with him in Afghanistan and has written a glowing biography of him.
Retired US army colonel Steve Boylan — a close Petraeus associate — told AFP that Petraeus “regrets the poor judgement and the lack of discipline more than we can probably put into words... His words to me were ‘I screwed up’.”
Boylan, who served as Petraeus’ spokesman when the pair were in Iraq, said the 60-year-old retired general had warned his wife of 38 years, Holly, about his affair before the news broke and was trying to make amends.
Panetta, Petraeus’ predecessor at the CIA and the most senior administration figure to yet address the scandal, told reporters on a flight to Australia Tuesday that Petraeus had taken “the right step”.
As for General Allen, who is married, Panetta said he had referred him to the Pentagon’s inspector general and put his pending confirmation as NATO supreme allied commander on hold.
But it remained unclear what allegations Allen faced, and officials declined to comment on whether the Marine general was accused of using his work e-mail to communicate with Kelley or had disclosed any classified information.
“It’s far too early to speculate on what the IG [inspector general] might find,” the defence official said, adding that Allen had denied any wrongdoing.
On Monday, FBI agents searched Broadwell’s North Carolina home, removing bags, boxes and pictures, local media reported. The married mother of two has not been seen at her home since Petraeus resigned over the affair.
Broadwell may have revealed classified information last month by claiming at a public forum that the CIA was detaining Libyan militia members and that the practice may have triggered the September 11 attack on the US consulate.
The CIA has denied holding prisoners in Benghazi.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation itself has also come under scrutiny.
On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the FBI agent Kelley contacted about the threatening e-mails, a personal acquaintance of hers, brought the matter to the attention of Republican lawmakers, believing the bureau was not moving aggressively enough with the investigation.
FBI supervisors had earlier barred the agent from any involvement in the case after he became “obsessed” with the matter, the Journal said.
It quoted one official as saying the agent had sent shirtless photos to Kelley well before the e-mail investigation had begun, and said he is currently under investigation by the internal affairs arm of the FBI.
The scandal has left Obama with a hole to fill on his national security team at a time when he is also expected to be replacing his secretaries of state, defence and treasury.