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Nov 15, 2012

The Petraeus affair, you couldn't make this stuff up

The Petraeus affair makes other political sex scandals look like a Christian RSVP.com speed date. Our correspondent delves into the affair that has everything.


Good God are you ready for this. You might want to get a pad and take notes or make a three dimensional diorama, to get it all in.

Remember a couple of years ago, when Republican South Carolina governor Mark Sanford disappeared for three days, and came back saying he had had a sudden whim to hike the Appalachian trail where there is no phone reception? And it turned out that he was on a love cruise with an Argentinian firecracker, a mistress he had visited with the express intent of breaking up with?

There was more to it, much more, including the end of the tradition of post-affair press conferences, where the male adulterer recounts his crimes — “I am sorry for seeking out the hot passionate succulent lovemaking that my tired, defeated wife, who you see at my side, could no longer furnish me with” etc. — but that was the gist. Sanford recently married the firecracker by the way. Anyway, remember that?

The Petraeus affair makes that look like a Christian RSVP.com speed date.

When last you tuned in perhaps, you heard something about General Petraeus, architect of the Iraq “surge”, and then head of the CIA, resigning his post, after it was revealed that he had been having an affair for some months last year. The correspondent was quickly revealed to be Paula Broadwell, the part-author of his biography, and a woman who had become a sort of unofficial representative of Petraeus and guard of his reputation last year as she did the rounds of the talk shows, pushing the bio, titled All In, about which no jokes spring to mind, sadly.

Petraeus is 60, with two adult children, and still married, Broadwell is aged 40. Petraeus appears to have ended the thing when he found out that Broadwell had sent a series of emails to one Jill Kelley, accusing her of having amorous attentions towards the General and telling her to back off.

Kelley was a platonic friend of Petraeus’s, a Florida socialite who was a “volunteer” at the Tampa base where Petraeus was located for a short period as head of US Central Command. Kelley did what anyone would do during a bout of jealousy— she called in a friend in the FBI, alleging harassment. The FBI told her to go to the local cops, or better still, a daytime talk show.

Sorry, no they didn’t. Kelley’s FBI contact traced the anonymous account emails back to Broadwell’s laptop, and in doing so found a whole series of first steamy, then narky, then how-can-I-disentangle-parts-of-me-from-this-ill-advised-disaster emails from Petraeus.

Actually it’s a little more complicated than that. Broadwell and Petraeus used the “draftdrop” method, where two people share an account and write messages to each other as drafts, thus creating no traffic trail. Smart spy move huh, only spoilt by the fact that if you’re using gmail (or whatever) then GMAIL OWNS YR ASS. Essentially, as Tor developer Jacob Appelbaum noted, if the head of the CIA uses gmail, then gmail is spying on him.

By now, the FBI were concerned that Petraeus may have given Broadwell classified information, and also a little freaked by the fact that Kelley’s maiden name was Khawam, and that she was from a prominent Lebanese-American family, with ties to the Iraq reconstruction contract feeding frenzy. At this point, the original FBI agent, a friend of Kelley’s, was taken off the investigation because though there was nothing amiss, it was important to be above reproach.

Was that it? No of course not. It was because the agent became obsessed with Jill Khawam Kelley himself, in a process that ended with him texting a picture of himself shirtless to her. The agent was later identified as Fred Humphries II, who, papers intoned, had “foiled the 1999 millennium bomb plot” by “using his knowledge of French”.

?????? No, me neither, but on we go. “Agent Shirtless” (as he became known), piqued, and convinced that something big was being covered up, or maybe just piqued, got in touch with a Republican congressman Dave Reichert, who took the matter to Republican House majority leader Eric Cantor. This, mind you, was all in October, as the election was going on.

By the end of the month, Cantor had gone with the story to FBI director Robert Mueller, who contacted Petraeus’s boss, Director of National Intelligence — of course you’ve never heard of the office — James Clapper, who told Petraeus he had to resign.

That this occurred at 5pm on the day of the election has all sorts of conspiracy theories going, but it seems to me the very nature of the time suggests the opposite — Clapper just did it as soon as he had come to a decision, and regarded the date as irrelevant. Obama would still be president the day after, whatever happened. Whether Cantor refrained from leaking it out of national duty or because he had no way of knowing if it would help or harm Romney’s electoral chances, or both — well, we will find out.

So it stopped there right? Hahahahaha. No, it then transpired that Jill Kelley had been exchanging one or two emails — actually, 20,000 — with Petraeus’s deputy, General John Allen, some of them from her to him “flirtatious”, from him to her possibly breaching security. Allen has resigned, and Kelley — well, two days ago she called the Tampa police asking them to clear TV vans from outside her house, on the grounds that she required “diplomatic protection”, as she was an honorary consul for South Korea, of course.

It’s fair to say that the scandal has thrown politics as usual into uproar, because no one knows how to place it easily in their talking points. Petraeus is another of those fine, upstanding right-stuff people the Right like to point to as the embodiment of traditional values, and of course he is — the value of a bit on the side that he then couldn’t shut down, with disastrous consequences. From the Left there is criticism of the way that he has been portrayed as austere and remote, rather than duplicitous and andropausally distracted.

Broadwell has been otherwise treated which is kinda fair, since all participants have performed at the Melrose Place level, and nothing about Broadwell — from the obsessive fitness regime, the body sculpting, the CV that sounds more anxiously driven than 30 Rock‘s Jenna Maroney, the locked-on love drone pursuit of the General, getting a ghost writer to write the book she was writing on him, all culminating in calling out a rival — nothing at all suggests a wild-eyed crazy lady of the sort that, let’s face it, makes the world a more interesting place.

Stay tuned. There’s got to be a GBF and a hilarious confusion of suitcases coming any minute. Or a distracting missile strike.



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28 thoughts on “The Petraeus affair, you couldn’t make this stuff up

  1. cpobke

    hahaha. That is the best summary of this whole baffling affair i have read so far.
    I still can’t understand why he had to resign though. What’s missing from this tale?

  2. Nici

    Hey, I reckon Paula Broadwell was justified in feeling a little bit threatened. You’ve missed the bit about how Jill Kelley has an … indentical twin sister … who was also engaged in email contact with both Petreaus and Allen. And they wrote her references for a custody battle. And how both sisters are millions of dollars in debt. Oh, it just writes itself.

  3. Will

    Very amusing summary, Guy. Cheers.

    I did spot a couple of facts in the piece which are in dispute.

    For instance, I read that Broadwell broke it off with Petraeus not the other way around, and that some of the stink from the indiscretion came from Petraeus sending hundreds of emails to her in the hope of rekindling the relationship.

    Also, regarding the exchanges with General Allen, the 20,000 number has been bandied about variously as emails or pages, but that appears to be a mistake amplified in the press. It was “only” thousands.

  4. zut alors

    Thanks, Guy, it’s hard to believe this is merely the precised version. The twists and turns of the script might’ve been penned by those responsible for The Bold and the Beautiful – except, in the CIA saga, there is no complicated family tree where the players are all related to each other.

    Let’s start taking bets on how soon Mark ‘Love Boat’ Sanford cheats on the ‘Mexican firecracker.’

    Jon Stewart reviewing his January interview with Broadwell was wonderfully self-effacing and worth googling.

  5. John Bennetts

    Great summary. At last we know what we know and we know what we don’t know.

  6. mikeb

    Nice precis. The twin twist has made it a story you couldn’t invent. I guess if you’re the head of the CIA then any semblance of impropriety is a sackable offence (remember all those old spy movies where the dude gets seduced into spilling his secrets, amongst other things, under the doona)? I do feel a bit sorry for him but honestly – was the booty worth it? I somehow doubt it.

  7. Holden Back

    Oh well, the thought of a likely movie gives some of the Kardashians roles to look forward to.

  8. Salamander

    Allen has resigned?

  9. Salamander

    “Andropausal”? Not analogous to menopausal if that is what you are trying to imply. Meno- means month.

  10. margbozik

    But you forgot to mention the pineapple which, according to News Ltd headlines, had a starring role in the affair.

  11. Salamander

    Just another clueless OWM / gender/tech ingenue. These days dumped mistresses can’t be relied upon to discreetly OD and retire to rehab. But gmail….!!! And WTF he’s head of US Intelligence….aarghh.

  12. klewso

    It must be fun to have a friend in the FBI ready to spring into action and do things like that for you, just like that?

  13. klewso

    So would “Humphries be bare”?

  14. michael r james


    You beat me to it. In fact I believe there are a few similarities with the Kiefer Sutherland movie The Sentinel, but it is probably that yellow dress of Kelly’s that is soooo reminiscent of Eva Longoria. The other movie that the scribes are comparing it to is Burn after Reading (Slate: Burn After Petraeus). (Being a typical Coen Bros movie everyone is unbelievably stupid and everyone ends up getting killed by their stupidity.)

    Now, to try to figure out the double or triple reverse trick ending.

  15. sebster

    “the CV that sounds more anxiously driven than 30 Rock’s Jenna Maroney”.

    Guy. You kill me.

    Thank you.

  16. Monash.edu

    And yet, no-one (except Guy, obliquely, in the last sentence, along with (I suppose) various other sensible people who I’m sure must share my confusion) seems to be willing to point out the outrageous moral double standards involved in the head of the CIA — an organisation devoted to the killing and torture of ‘enemies of the state’, guilty or otherwise — being sacked for engaging in extramarital sex. I mean, I do HOPE I’m not the only person who considers that bizarre.

  17. zut alors

    Just because they are permitted to bear arms doesn’t mean they are permitted to bare themselves. Apparently.

  18. Dogs breakfast

    This is why I don’t watch soap operas. Real life is far more interesting and convoluted than anything that the bold and the beautiful can think up. 🙂

    I remarked to my spouse that I am constantly amazed what people will write in emails these days. I work on the basis that nothing I ever write, even on apparently anonymous forums like this, is ever beyond being connected back to me.

    Frightening naivety.

  19. AR

    Let’s not forget that this self aggrandising braggart is the off-record source for the Rolling Stone/McChrystal skandal.
    Also he got his leg up for nbeing the Butcher of Falujah so no surprise that he has so little EQ or human feeling that he probably doesn’t even see the problem of his butt.. sorry, bit of the side.

  20. Graham R

    Oh, that was beautiful. Thanks Guy.

  21. Damien

    This article is priceless as was the Sanford poiece back in 2008 which I remember well.

  22. klewso

    Reckon this was the first time “St Dave” had gone “over the top”?

  23. Bill Williams

    Petraeus belongs to a club we know well in Australia from two of its recent local stars: Kevin Rudd and Alan Joyce.

    Here’s a couple of takes from Jeffrey Pfeffer on the subject of narcissistic leaders:

    “First, a definition: narcissistic leaders, as research by Stanford colleague Charles O’Reilly and colleagues notes, are characterized by the traits of dominance, self-confidence, a sense of entitlement, grandiosity, and low empathy. As Michael Maccoby pointed out in The Productive Narcissist, many well-known, even iconic leaders such as Martha Stewart, Jack Welch, and Bill Gates are almost certainly narcissistic personalities, and narcissism is useful for attaining leadership positions, maintaining power, and even stimulating creativity and innovation. O’Reilly’s research on narcissism among Silicon Valley executives shows that narcissistic CEOs earn more, last in their jobs longer, and also have a larger gap between their pay and the pay of their senior team.”

    “And while narcissism and the associated behaviors may indeed help people ascend into leadership roles, as recent experience suggests, narcissistic individuals also contain the seeds of their own (self)-destruction. And leaders’ downfalls are costly — Lockheed now has to find another person to assume the CEO role, and President Obama must find someone to take over the CIA. So while indeed there are productive narcissists, narcissistic behavior can be very unproductive for both the work organizations and the people who experience it.”

    Labor woke up to Rudd’s madness. I wonder how long it will take for the Qantas board to wake up to Joyce’s condition? Or if, like Petraeus, he will fall on his own sword?

    Very well written Guy, but perhaps a touch too misogynistic. We blokes all get the “firecracker” metaphor, but there will be many women who find this piece tarnished in the same way as your “all nork and no action piece”. Even so, your storytelling skills have to be acknowledged.

  24. AsGrayAs

    @ Monash.edu –
    These double standards, indeed, hypocrisy of the highest order = the core of the foundations of the US and its internal and international self-promotion.
    This case is probably more clear-cut hypocrisy than Clinton. Signs exec. orders to assassinate (like any and every Pres.), sub-contracts Kosovo to be obliterated, but impeachment is threatened for a cigar in the Oval and a s-men stain.
    @ Dogs brekky – yes, frightening, very. Are we expected to believe that CIA did not have eyes on this as soon as the gmail account was activated?
    @ AR – The Bastard Butcher of Fallujah was allowed to stumble; not fall on his sword, but maybe trip over his d-ck… Someone really doesn’t like him; this could have so easily been made to go away before the press got a sniff.
    Nice wrap-up Guy.

  25. Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay

    Really he should be sacked for the stupidity of using Gmail.
    Great story.

  26. michael r james

    Speaking of Eva Longoria (or Kardashians) in today’s Slate a mock tv trailer:
    The Real Housewives of the Pentagon

  27. robinw

    Thanks Guy for explaining this in such a succinct fashion. I’ve been scratching my head for days wondering WTF it was all about and now, other than the absolutely delicious gmail angle, I’m still wondering.

  28. lorraine benham

    Um, Guy, I don’t think Allen has resigned. He seems to be suspended from his Afghanistan job and his comming appointment to head up US troops in Europe (presumably in relation to NATO etc) is on hold until they straighten out just how flirty those emails were on his part and whether he did cross any lines with regard to classified material.
    But you are spot on re the whole Melrose place feel to the whole saga.
    There has been some vigorous comment from women commentators pointing out how the conservative press is shaping the whole thing as an example of these noble men being trapped by sluts and how this feeds into the whole anti-feminist blinkers worn by the GOP.
    One of the more hilarious bits of knowledge that has come out is that had Petraeus’s boss not told him to resign he would have stayed put because an awful lot of CIA bosses commit adultery and it’s not regarded as big or important news about someone.


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