Private affair, public downfall
Quit over an affair with his biographer ... CIA director, David Petraeus. Photo: Reuters
In the fever swamps online, and on Fox News, the story is that David Petraeus was forced out of his post as CIA director by the White House in order to prevent his testimony before a Senate committee over the killings in Benghazi.
The theory was never going to hold, and it was blown out of the water when not only did Petraeus declare he would testify (as he did on Friday) but so too did the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.
On Thursday, Petraeus told a reporter for the HLN television network that he resigned because of the affair he had with Paula Broadwell, his biographer, not because of any questions over the CIA's role during the September 11 attacks on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
Writer Paula Broadwell. Photo: Reuters
It is hard to exaggerate the enthusiasm with which the exhausted Washington media and its audience embraced the Petraeus sex scandal this week.
After a long and joyless election campaign, and with the prospect of fiscal cliff negotiations dominating the headlines for weeks and months to come, here was a story with some real life in it.
It had all the elements - two of the most lauded military officers of their generation, two women and a shirtless FBI agent with a barrow to push, all set against the backdrop of national security.
But while at least four investigations continue into aspects of the affair, there is still no evidence that at its heart there is any more to this story than a brief affair between a powerful man and a younger woman.
The story exploded when Petraeus announced his resignation last Friday due to an affair with a woman who was soon revealed to be Broadwell, who he had spent time with as she researched a biography of him.
Before he retired from the military to take over as CIA director, Petraeus had been an extraordinary soldier. He had led international forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and rewritten the US military's counter-insurgency manual.
He had also served for a time as the commander of the United States Central Command, responsible for operations in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It was at CENTCOM, as it is known, at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, that Petraeus and his wife were befriended by the other woman in the story, Jill Kelley, a local socialite who as an honorary "ambassador" for the CENTCOM base arranged functions for senior officers.
At some point it appears that Broadwell felt threatened by Kelley, a jealousy that apparently prompted Broadwell to send a series of nasty emails.
The first one reportedly arrived not in Kelley's inbox, but in that of Petraeus's deputy at CENTCOM, the Marine Corps four-star general, John R Allen. It lobbed in from an account named "Kelley Patrol". Allen sent the email on to Kelley and her husband, who were concerned that the author appeared to know Kelley's movements.
''Again, the concern is not that someone is saying nasty things about Jill, but that someone is stalking them electronically and physically,'' an anonymous source from within the investigation told USA Today.
The Kelleys received more emails themselves before Jill Kelley contacted an FBI agent she knew - and who has since been named as Frederick W. Humphries II - who began an investigation which led back to Broadwell, and revealed her affair with Petraeus.
It appears that during his working hours, Petraeus ran the world's largest and most sophisticated intelligence agency, but in his own time he hid correspondence by leaving draft emails in a shared email account.
The FBI's investigation began midyear and as it slowly progressed some involved became concerned that Humphries was becoming obsessed with the case. Officials were also unimpressed when they found a photo of Humphries posing shirtless with what appear to be two bullet-riddled target dummies. According to reports, Humphries was dismissed from the case, though he claims he was never assigned to it and explains that he had sent the photo to Jill Kelley as a joke. (An internal investigation into Humphries's conduct is under way.) For his part, Humphries was concerned that there was some sort of cover-up in place, and in late October he approached the Republican House majority leader, Eric Cantor with information about the case.
This appears to be the first time any senior politician was made aware that the FBI was investigating the CIA.
By then the scandal had already enveloped General Allen. As the FBI looked into the emails between Broadwell and Petraeus, they discovered tens of thousands of other emails between Kelley and Allen.
Allen denies that he engaged in an affair with Kelley, though an investigation into his conduct has been ordered by the Secretary of Defence, Leon Panetta. As an officer, Allen is subject under Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which criminalises adultery.
Confirmation hearings over Allen's pending promotion to NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe have been put on hold until the investigation into his conduct is finished.
The FBI investigation into Petraeus so far appears to have found no wrongdoing on his behalf, though investigators are still sifting through classified documents found on Broadwell's computer. There is no suggestion that they came from Petraeus, and Broadwell has security clearance in her own right.
Despite the lack of official misconduct on Petraeus's behalf, the affair and the various investigations pose serious questions for the administration. There are concerns at the very notion of the FBI investigating the CIA chief at length, especially as neither the White House nor Congress's intelligence committees were notified.
Politically the affair is a distraction for the President as he enters negotiations with Republicans over the pending fiscal crisis. He must also appoint a new CIA director even as he puts together his new cabinet.
And while many see that a CIA director should not have made himself vulnerable to blackmail, there is a small but growing debate over the standards serving military officers are held to under the Uniform Code.
The novelist Joyce Carol Oates caught the mood in a tweet over the affair.
"Don't understand why 'adultery' is quasi-illegal in a nation in which church & state are separate," she wrote.