Marine Gen. John Allen's aspirations to lead NATO have been shelved — at least temporarily — in the wake of allegations he exchanged as many as 30,000 emails with Jill Kelley, a volunteer social liaison officer at a Tampa air force base.
Allen is the current U.S. commander in Afghanistan. U.S. President Barack Obama put the brakes on his NATO nomination early Tuesday.
"At the request of the secretary of defence, the president has put on hold his nomination of Gen. Allen ... pending the investigation of Gen. Allen's conduct," Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council, said in a statement.
Later in the day, however, the wealth of emails initially branded "potentially inappropriate" were said to be innocuous.
The Associated Press reported that senior U.S. officials who have read the exchanges said they were neither explicit nor seductive — at most, they said, they might have been construed as flirtatious and unprofessional.
Adultery can be a crime under military law, depending on the circumstances. It's particularly frowned upon for intelligence officials since it can leave them vulnerable to blackmail attempts.
Kelley and her family are now the subject of intense media attention months after she first complained to a friendly FBI agent in Florida about menacing, anonymous emails showing up in her inbox.
That agent, incidentally, was removed from the case when he reportedly sent shirtless photos of himself to Kelley and tipped off a Republican congressman about the FBI probe because he feared it was being stalled to Obama's political benefit.
The source of the nasty emails to Kelley turned out to be 40-year-old Paula Broadwell. The FBI then learned of an ongoing affair between Petraeus, the retired four-star general, and Broadwell, his fawning biographer and a North Carolina mother of two.
Petraeus, 60, resigned from the CIA on Friday, one day after informing Obama about the affair.
But investigators also reportedly learned of another puzzling association throughout the course of their probe — Allen's and Kelly's. In two years, from 2010 to 2012, the pair apparently exchanged as many as 30,000 emails.
"That's a heck of a lot of time behind the computer sending notes to a party planner," retired general James "Spider" Marks said on CNN.
"From a senior officer who has, obviously, a bunch of things on his plate. He's burning a lot of daylight spending time with a party planner over email. So that's just bizarre, in my mind."
Now Kelley, not just Broadwell — who jealously viewed the socialite as a rival for Petraeus's affections — is on the hot seat, accused of impropriety amid concerns she too may have possessed classified information.
The 37-year-old Kelley, the daughter of Philadelphia-based Lebanese immigrants, is married to a Tampa surgeon and has three young children. She insists she and her husband are simply close friends of David and Holly Petraeus. She's now hired a high-priced D.C. lawyer to represent her.
A blog written by Petraeus's adult daughter suggests the couples and their children have spent Christmas and Thanksgiving together in recent years. An online scrapbook about one of Kelley's young daughters features a photo of the girl sitting on David Petraeus's lap.
Broadwell, however, apparently saw something more in their relationship.
According to some reports, her emails to Kelley asked if the woman's husband was aware of her behaviour, and alleged she'd witnessed her suspected romantic rival stroking Petraeus's leg beneath a table at a social event.
FBI agents, meantime, have been searching Broadwell's home in Charlotte, N.C. They were seen removing computers and boxes of documents on Monday night.
More troubling ties emerged on Tuesday between the generals and Kelley. Both the disgraced former CIA director and Allen wrote letters recently in support of Kelley's twin sister, Natalie Khawam, who's embroiled in an ugly custody battle with her ex-husband.
Khawam has been described in court documents as "psychologically unstable" and was ordered to pay her ex's US$350,000 legal fees after losing custody of her four-year-old boy last year.
But that didn't stop Petraeus or Allen from intervening, both urging the court in separate letters in September to grant her more access to the child.
The generals asked the court to overturn last year's ruling, made due to serious reservations about Khawam's honesty and stability, according to records obtained by numerous news outlets.
Those court documents said Khawam lied repeatedly under oath, made false domestic abuse claims and harassed her ex's business partners.
Petraeus saw things differently.
"My wife and I have known Natalie for approximately three years, getting to know her while serving in Tampa, Florida, through our friendship with Dr. and Mrs. Scott Kelley," he wrote.
Khawam's child, he wrote, "would benefit from much more time with his mother and from removal of the burdensome restrictions imposed on her when she does get to spend time with him."
Allen's letter states Khawam, who's deeply in debt, clearly loves her child "and cherishes each and every opportunity she has to spend time with him. She is a dedicated mother."
It's a messy, multi-pronged drama that some wags on Twitter have dubbed a "love pentagon." Republican congressman Pete King called it a "Greek tragedy."
Regardless of the description, the scandal marks a stunningly seamy end to the career of one of the most storied military commanders in recent American history — and is threatening the future of another.
The married Allen succeeded Petraeus as the top allied commander in Afghanistan in July 2011. He was also Petraeus's deputy from 2008 until 2010, when both men were in charge of the military's Tampa-based Central Command, where Kelley served as a social liaison.
There's been no suggestion Allen will lose his job as commander in Afghanistan. Prior to the scandal, he was expected to easily get through confirmation hearings in the Senate on his nomination to be the commander of American forces in Europe and the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO.
The allegations against Allen are relatively fresh. The FBI first notified the Pentagon of Allen's "flirtatious" communications with Kelley on Sunday night, a senior defence department official told the Washington Post.
In response, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta referred the investigation on Monday to the department's inspector general.
Another senior official denied an affair between Allen and Kelley, although the source acknowledged the pair exchanged "a few hundred emails over a couple of years" that were largely routine. In an interview with the Washington Post, the official disputed they numbered into the thousands.
"He's never been alone with her," the official told the Post. "Did he have an affair? No."
The senior official said Allen, too, received at least one anonymous email about Kelley from Broadwell, reportedly using the email handle KelleyPatrol. The email warned Allen that Kelley was a "seductress" and urged him not to get involved with her.
Allen discussed the email with Kelley, who was already receiving harassing messages at the time.
The latest developments create serious headaches for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Allen was soon set to give Panetta a recommendation on U.S. troop withdrawals in 2013; he's now in Washington, dealing with the fallout from the FBI probe.
That investigation, set into motion by Kelley, reportedly focused attention on her email as well — something she apparently didn't bank on when calling a friend in the FBI to complain about the anonymous messages.
In fact, the Wall Street Journal reported late Tuesday that Kelley attempted to get the agency to drop its investigation by mid-summer, concerned about the personal information it might unearth.
Kelley's friend at the FBI, later removed from the case, is now under internal investigation.
His personal friendship with Kelley has prompted questions about why an investigation was launched into the anonymous emails to begin with. According to some reports, the messages were more insulting than threatening and didn't warrant FBI attention.
There is also evidence of financial woes for the Kelleys. The couple has been sued as many as nine times since moving to Florida, according to the Tampa Bay Times. They face foreclosure and are heavily in debt.