General alert: The fall of David Petraeus

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Infidelity brought an abrupt end to his career and the saga has had its very own domino effect

This weekend it is becoming clear that, for all the absurd detail of the saga of Generals Petraeus and Allen, what we have here is not so much a four-star security scandal as a couple of beribboned, triple-oak-leaf-cluster military big shots who behaved like a pair of chumps. And in this they were ably assisted by two women whose ambition and relentless networking would, to men less cocooned than career soldiers, have given off danger signals with every fixed smile and each insistent email. They might as well have had TROUBLE tattooed on their foreheads.

But they didn't. Or at least not back in 2011 when Paula Broadwell began her affair with the four-star general David Petraeus, the new director of the CIA, and a recent ex-general. She was a super-fit reserve army officer and would-be academic who, three years before, had begun a PhD thesis on leadership which soon morphed into a biography project involving frequent visits to the general in Afghanistan where he commanded US troops. Their relationship remained chaste until he returned to Washington for the CIA post in 2011. It continued – lubricated by emails reliving, or anticipating, sexual encounters – until about four months ago. What also happened then, and may well have been the trigger for the end of the affair, is the move that drew in Woman B and General Two, and, ultimately, projected the entire caper on to a worldwide screen. Paula Broadwell sent some emails.

She sent them to a woman called Jill Kelley, the Lebanese-born wife of an oncology surgeon, who had gone to considerable expense and no end of trouble to turn her home in Tampa, Florida, into a venue for frequent soirees for the multinational officers stationed at the nearby MacDill Air Force Base, a vast military township covering nearly 6,000 acres and boasting its own championship golf course. There would turn out to be more to this woman's socialising than would meet the unsuspecting military eye, but, in the meantime, she had become a firm friend of Generals Petraeus and John Allen and their wives.

Quite what – if anything – put it into Broadwell's head that the socially tireless Kelley might be her rival for Patraeus's illicit affections is not known. But the idea festered, and prompted Broadwell to send Kelley anonymous messages saying things like: "I know what you're doing." They were not threatening, as was first reported, but apparently more catty, the sort of thing a jealous would-be prom queen might send to her perceived rival. Kelley was sufficiently worried by their tone that she contacted an acquaintance at the FBI. Broadwell had also sent a few emails to General Allen, at least one of which warned him to stay away from Kelley, whom she called a "seductress". In due course, the agency began full inquiries. It didn't take long to trace the emails to Paula Broadwell, or rather to several webmail accounts, one called "KelleyPatrol", another "Tampa", and two others. Broadwell had sent the emails not from her own computer, but from hotels or internet cafés – a something-to-hide habit that further piqued the FBI's interest in a person who seemed to know Petraeus's movements.

But what really got its attention was that another person had access to these email accounts: General Petraeus himself. And, in delving into the messages logged there, it was plain he and Broadwell had been having an affair. They communicated not just by conventional messaging, but by writing an email, saving it to Drafts, and then leaving it there so the other could sign on and read the unsent billets-doux. He was confronted and, three days after Barack Obama was re-elected as President, he resigned.

Over the next seven days, developments would occur which not even the most imaginative screenwriter would dream up. Kelley, it turned out, had carried on an email correspondence over two years with General Allen so extensive that it ran to between 20,000 and 30,000 pages. This has mostly been characterised as no more than flirtatious in tone, although unsourced accounts say that some messages were akin to phone sex. Both deny any species of physical relationship. But the news prompted investigators to shine a light on Kelley, and, in particular, her self-appointed role as a social liaison person for military high-ups at the nearby base, and South Korea granting her an honorary consulship, which she then rather flaunted, not least in its being emblazoned on her Mercedes. Indeed, when the press began hanging around her colonnaded home, she made a 911 call, raising the possibility that she might be given diplomatic protection.

But there was more. The woman who threw ostentatious parties, and whose hospitality had been enjoyed by the generals and their wives, had extensive financial troubles. Banks have started foreclosure proceedings against two of the properties she and her husband owned; they are reportedly struggling to meet mortgage payments on their $1.5m home; and they are also being sued over bank loans and credit card bills. A cancer charity she and her husband set up in 2005 lasted just two years. It final annual accounts show revenues of $157,284, and weighty expenses, including $43,307 on meals and entertainment, $38,610 for travel, $25,013 in legal fees, $8,067 for "supplies", and $5,082 in phone bills.

Her twin sister, Natalie Khawam, who also lives at the Kelley's Florida home, had even deeper difficulties. She has filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, citing debts of $3.6m, and, when she divorced, lost custody of her son after the judge described her as a financially and emotionally troubled woman whose testimony could not be relied upon. Yet, when asked to write a reference in support of her custody appeal last September, both generals willingly got out the headed writing paper and wrote letters to the court full of praise for Khawam, whom they knew through her sister. General Allen praised her "integrity". US sources indicate that, for a senior army officer to do so without making inquiries, was, to say the least, ill-advised.

Paula Broadwell, meanwhile, had left the home she shares with her husband and two young sons. She decamped to her brother's home, declined all requests for a comment, and hired the lawyer who acted for Monica Lewinsky, Bill Clinton's inamorata. She may need all the counsel she can get. First, the image of the high-achieving thruster that she has cultivated is now beginning to fray a little. The two University of Denver degrees she boasts of on her LinkedIn CV are, says the university, only one. She failed to fulfil the requirement for a PhD at Harvard and left with a lesser degree, and her doctoral studies at King's College London, begun four years ago, are now subject to an ethical review. One Harvard professor described her as a self-promoter; another claimed: "She was a lot of talk but not a lot of follow-through." However, her boss at Tufts University, where she was deputy director of a counterterrorism centre, spoke highly of her work.

Second, there is the matter of the large amount of classified material, on her computer and in the form of documents, which FBI officers found and took from her North Carolina home. She had, as an army officer, some clearance, but if it includes information beyond her security level or it was stored in a careless way, prosecution could follow. There are said to be documents which she removed from military premises and should not have been, although none of it is CIA material, and there is no suggestion she received any of it from General Petraeus.

It's entirely possible that all this nonsense will lead to no prosecutions, although it certainly does leave four people having to make serious amends to their partners. The questionable judgement he has shown may also cost General Allen the post of Supreme Commander of US and Nato forces in Europe, for which he was previously regarded as a shoo-in. But the saga reveals something more than merely the follies of four people, and that is the freakish level of celebrity accorded to senior military in the US. The adoration of them, and their concomitant swagger, may well have fuelled the allure that Broadwell, and – not physically but socially – Kelley felt. They were, basically, groupies. And the generals were flattered – the one into an affair, the other into misjudgements.

There is now an inquiry into ethics and military high-ups, prompted not just by Petraeus but also by the cases of Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair, facing 26 charges of forcible sodomy, adultery and inappropriate relationships, and that of General William "Kip" Ward, stripped of a star for spending thousands of dollars on lavish travel and other extravagances. America is discovering, and not before time, that having lots of ribbons on your chest doesn't stop you being a chump.

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