WASHINGTON - A CIA sex scandal seemingly lifted from the script of a teenaged soap opera is enthralling the United States despite the aftermath of a presidential election that has spurred a substantive debate about the changing face of America.
Divided as they may be politically, however, Americans are united in their fascination with the scandal engulfing David Petraeus, the director of the world-renowned spy agency who quit last week after admitting an extra-marital affair.
The relationship was revealed when the FBI discovered his lover, Paula Broadwell, had sent nasty emails to yet another woman, Jill Kelley — a Tampa socialite who insists she's a close family friend of Petraeus and his wife, not a second paramour.
Late-breaking news reports on Monday suggested, however, that the anonymous messages weren't overly threatening, but merely insulting, raising questions — and prompting an internal investigation at the FBI — about why investigators bothered looking into them in the first place.
The Daily Beast quoted a source in the intelligence community as saying the emails were mostly "kind of cat-fight stuff."
"More like, 'Who do you think you are? … You parade around the base ...You need to take it down a notch,'" the source said of the emails.
Other reports said Broadwell's emails asked Kelley if her husband was aware of her behaviour, and added she'd witnessed the Tampa woman touching Petraeus provocatively under a table.
Kelley worked as an unpaid social liaison officer at the MacDill air force base in Tampa. According to a blog written by Petraeus's adult daughter, Anne, Kelley and her husband were close to the Petraeuses; the families and their children often spent Christmas and Thanksgiving together in recent years.
Kelley complained to the FBI when the emails began appearing in her inbox in May.
Petraeus, 60, was reportedly stunned to learn from the FBI that his girlfriend was behind the harassment of the woman she apparently viewed as a romantic rival.
In emails to Broadwell mid-summer, Petraeus asked her to stop bothering Kelley. He ended the relationship soon after he was made aware of the harassment, the Washington Post reported Monday.
It's all making for a stunningly adolescent end to the career of a revered military icon.
Broadwell, 40, has said she and the celebrated four-star general have known each other for six years. But their affair didn't start until after he left the U.S. army last year, said Steve Boylan, a retired colonel and close friend of Petraeus's.
While there have been reports that the romance began earlier in 2011, Boylan told ABC's "Good Morning America" on Monday that it began a year ago — shortly after Petraeus took over as head of the CIA — and ended about four months ago.
Broadwell spent time in Afghanistan in 2010, while Petraeus was still serving there as the top U.S. commander. The general raised eyebrows in Afghanistan when he granted her extensive access to him as she worked on her glowing biography on him, with its suddenly titillating title "All In."
"This was poor judgment on his part," Boylan said.
"It was a colossal mistake; he knows that, he's acknowledged that. Now he and his family are going to try to move forward and past this, which we know is going to be hard work, and it's going to take time."
Holly Petraeus, the general's wife of almost 40 years, "is not exactly pleased right now," Boylan added.
Little wonder. News of the affair has uncorked an eruption of sordid gossip items and photos of Petraeus and his erstwhile lover, the married North Carolina mother of two young boys.
Emails between the general and Broadwell, uncovered by the FBI as they investigated Kelley's complaint, reportedly contain details about "sex under a desk" and reveal Broadwell's nickname for Petraeus: "Peaches."
An 18-month-old news photo has also become a sensation.
As the general and his wife arrived at a Senate hearing into his nomination as head of the CIA in June 2011, Broadwell was captured by news cameras beaming up adoringly at Petraeus in a shot reminiscent of Monica Lewinsky's loving public gaze at former president Bill Clinton more than 15 years ago.
Adding to Petraeus's woes?
It appears Broadwell, a former Army officer who reportedly fancied herself Petraeus's gate-keeper, may have revealed classified information about an alleged CIA prison in Benghazi in a recent speech to her alma mater, the University of Denver.
In the address on Oct. 26 — weeks after she admitted the affair to the FBI and after her romance with Petraeus was supposedly kaput — Broadwell claimed the CIA was holding several Libyan militia members prisoner in Benghazi.
Broadwell suggested that's why militants launched the attack in September on the American consulate in Benghazi that ultimately killed Chris Stevens, the U.S. envoy to Libya, and three other Americans.
"Now, I don't know if a lot of you heard this, but the CIA annex had actually ... taken a couple of Libyan militia members prisoner and they think that the attack on the consulate was an effort to try to get these prisoners back," she said.
The CIA denies holding any prisoners at the annex, telling reporters that Broadwell's claims are false.
"The CIA has not had detention authority since January 2009 ... Any suggestion that the agency is still in the detention business is uninformed and baseless," the agency said in a statement.
The FBI also reportedly found sensitive military information on Broadwell's computer, but Petraeus has denied it came from him, and suggested to investigators she must have obtained it from other officials in Afghanistan when she spent time there.
Questions are also swirling in D.C. about who knew what, when.
Lawmakers and other officials are insistent that now, more than ever, Petraeus must testify before hotly anticipated congressional hearings into the eruption of anti-American violence in Libya on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
Petraeus had originally been scheduled to appear before a House of Representatives committee on Wednesday. Instead, acting director Mike Morrell is set to testify.
Michael Hayden, a former CIA director who served under George W. Bush, said Monday it's important that Petraeus answers questions soon about Libya.
"Petraeus will have a personal insight into this because he did visit Libya after the attack," he said. "I think he owes it to the committees to share those insights with them."
Democrat Dianne Feinstein, head of the Senate intelligence committee, also said she's prepared to subpoena a report on Benghazi written by Petraeus following his recent trip to Libya.
"I believe that there is a trip report. We have to ask to see the trip report. One person tells me he has read it," she said on MSNBC on Monday.
"And then we try to get it, and they tell me it hasn't been done. That's unacceptable. 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 added that President Barack Obama should have been told much earlier about the FBI's investigation into Petraeus.
Late Monday, news broke that the federal agent in Tampa who launched the investigation into Broadwell's emails to Kelley was forbidden from taking part in the probe over the summer due to concerns that he'd become personally involved in the case.
The agent allegedly sent shirtless photos of himself to Kelley, the Wall Street Journal reported, and tipped off a Republican congressman about the case. He's now under internal review by the FBI.
Feinstein and other legislators are calling for a broader probe into the FBI's handling of the case.
Eric Cantor, the majority leader of the House of Representatives, is one of several high-profile officials who was apparently tipped off about the affair by the FBI agent in Tampa long before the news reached the White House, raising questions about why Obama and his staff weren't brought into the loop weeks ago.
Cantor's staff has said they didn't pass along a tip about the affair because they weren't sure it was credible.