David H. Petraeus
Washington, Nov. 13: Is a string of angry emails really enough, in an age of boisterous online exchanges, to persuade the FBI to open a cyberstalking investigation?
Sometimes the answer is yes, law enforcement officials and legal experts said yesterday — especially if the emails in question reflect an inside knowledge of the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
That was true of the emails sent anonymously to Jill Kelley, a friend of the CIA director, David H. Petraeus, which prompted the FBI office in Tampa, Florida, to begin an investigation last June. The inquiry traced the emails to Petraeus’s biographer, Paula Broadwell, exposed their extramarital affair and led on Friday to his resignation after 14 months as head of the intelligence agency.
Last night, FBI agents went to Broadwell’s home in Charlotte, North Carolina, and were seen carrying away what several reporters at the scene said were boxes of documents.
A law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the case remains open, said Broadwell had consented to the search.
Some commentators have questioned whether the bureau would ordinarily investigate a citizen complaint about unwanted emails, suggesting that there must have been a hidden motive, possibly political, to take action. FBI officials are scheduled to brief the Senate and House intelligence committees about the case.
But law enforcement officials insisted yesterday that the case was handled “on the merits”. The cyber squad at the FBI’s Tampa field office opened an investigation, after consulting with federal prosecutors, based on what appeared to be a legitimate complaint about email harassment.
The complaint was more intriguing, the officials acknowledged, because the author of the emails, which criticised Kelley for supposed flirtatious behaviour towards Petraeus at social events, seemed to have an insider’s knowledge of the CIA director’s activities. One email accused Kelley of “touching” Petraeus inappropriately under a dinner table.
“There was a legitimate case to open on the facts, with the support of the prosecutors,” said the official who described the search at Broadwell’s home. He added, “They asked, does somebody know more about Petraeus than you’d expect?”
Kelley, a volunteer with wounded veterans and military families, brought her complaint to a rank-and-file agent she knew from a previous encounter with the FBI office, the official also said. That agent, who had previously pursued a friendship with Kelley and had earlier sent her shirtless photographs of himself, was “just a conduit” for the complaint, the official said. The agent had no training in cybercrime, was not part of the cyber squad handling the case and was never assigned to the investigation.
But the agent, who was not identified, continued to “nose around” about the case, and eventually his superiors “told him to stay the hell away from it, and he was not invited to briefings”, the official said. The Wall Street Journal first reported last night that the agent had been barred from the case.
Later, the agent became convinced — incorrectly, the official said — that the case had stalled. Because of his “worldview”, as the official put it, he suspected a politically motivated cover-up to protect President Obama. The agent alerted Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, who called the FBI director, Robert S. Mueller III, on October 31 to tell him of the agent’s concerns. The official said the agent’s self-described “whistle-blowing” was “a little embarrassing” but had no effect on the investigation.
David H. Laufman, who served as a federal prosecutor in national security cases from 2003 to 2007, said, “there’s a lot of chatter and noise about cybercrimes”, and most of it does not lead to an investigation.
But he added, “It’s plausible to me that if Kelley indicated that the stalking was related to her friendship with the CIA director, that would have elevated it as a priority for the bureau.”