Petraeus scandal: 'I never imagined they were having an affair. I was dumbfounded'

Ghostwriting Paula Broadwell's book on the US General gave Vernon Loeb a ringside seat, but suspicions about their relations didn't cross his mind

My wife says I'm the most clueless person in America. I never anticipated the extramarital affair between David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell, the woman I'd worked with for 16 months on a book about General Petraeus's year commanding the war in Afghanistan. On rare occasions, her good looks and close access would prompt a colleague to raise an eyebrow about their relationship, but I never took it seriously.

I certainly wasn't alone. The unusually close relationship between subject and biographer was no secret by the time President Obama nominated General Petraeus as CIA Director in the summer of 2011 following his command year in Kabul. America's most famous and heralded general had granted Ms Broadwell extraordinary access for her book, All In: The Education of General David Petraeus. Nor has Ms Broadwell done anything to hide this access or her great admiration of General Petraeus since the book was published in January, describing him in terms that are, well, effusive.

So when the news broke on Friday that General Petraeus was resigning in disgrace because of an adulterous affair, I was dumbfounded. "Could it be Paula?" my friends and colleagues asked. Even then, I said I would give her the benefit of the doubt – until the doubt evaporated a few hours later.

I came by my ringside seat on this epic Washington scandal innocently enough: In July 2010, I got a call from my agent, Scott Moyers in New York, who wanted to know whether I was interested in ghostwriting a war book about General Petraeus, who had just been named commander in Afghanistan. I'd just finished ghostwriting a CIA memoir that Scott had represented.

He described his other client, with whom I'd be working, as a woman who had unique access to him. She was, in Moyers' telling, a dynamo – a West Point graduate who'd worked in counter-terrorism after 11 September and was pursuing a PhD at King's College in London. It sounded like an incredible opportunity.

As Pentagon correspondent for The Washington Post, I had briefly been embedded with the 101st Airborne Division under General Petraeus's command in northern Iraq in the fall of 2003, and found him – and what he'd accomplished – impressive and inspiring. Mosul, and much of his sector in the north, was largely pacified, and General Petraeus granted me unfettered access to his command headquarters and his battalion commanders. We even went running together around one of Saddam's demi-palaces in Mosul, where his command was bivouacked.

The fact that I was a runner seemed to Moyers to make me the perfect fit for the job. He joked, when he was introducing me to Ms Broadwell, that I was the only ghostwriter who could run with General Petraeus – and with Ms Broadwell. Both were ultra-competitive distance runners who prided themselves on speed, and both could do hundreds of push-ups.

I flew to Charlotte and spent an afternoon sifting through an impressive pile of emails and documents on Ms Broadwell's dining room table that she had already compiled as part of a PhD thesis she was writing on General Petraeus and his approach to leadership, which he had agreed to help her with after they met at Harvard a few years earlier.

What was she like? Professional, relaxed and clearly excited about the material she had for me in her big, comfortable house in a stately North Carolina neighbourhood. She spoke with great affection about her husband, a surgical radiologist whom she'd met in the military, and her two young sons, whom she clearly adores.

We began our work as Petraeus was assuming command of a faltering war effort. Ms Broadwell began reporting, relying on extensive military contacts, among them numerous members of his inner circle. She made her first of four or five lengthy reporting trips to Afghanistan in the late summer of 2010, somehow managing to juggle her responsibilities as a mother of two small boys with trips to a war zone.

As someone who has found himself closer than I ever wanted to be to incoming fire, I was impressed by her energy and commitment to the book. My role was far less dramatic: I sat in my basement in Maryland and wrote what was virtually a real-time narrative fashioned from the torrent of emails, documents and interview transcripts Ms Broadwell sent my way.

From the outset, the editors at Penguin Press were quite clear about what they wanted: a book on the rigours of command told from an inside point of view. The ultimate narrative tracked what turned out to be a year in command for General Petraeus. The book is not a traditional biography, although it does contain a series of biographical digressions about him. I had no say over the book's ultimate take on General Petraeus, which some have found excessively laudatory. Ms Broadwell was free to make whatever revision or modifications she desired to the text, and did so liberally. To my mind, in any event, the book remains a valuable chronicle of his year in command and makes clear that the war wasn't going all that well.

Before Ms Broadwell's first trip to Afghanistan, I wondered whether she really had the kind of access necessary to deliver the book we'd promised. But she wore down whatever resistance General Petraeus may have had to the project, which he never agreed to make an authorised biography.

By the time of Ms Broadwell's last reporting trip to Afghanistan, her access was exclusive: She flew out of Kabul on General Petraeus's jet after an emotional change-of-command ceremony and accompanied him during a barnstorming tour he made of European capitals on his way back to Washington.

I always thought that Ms Broadwell's motives were pure, and I always wondered why General Petraeus was granting her the access that he did. The two must have seen a lot of themselves in each other – they shared the West Point bond, an addiction to physical fitness and running and an uber-optimistic, never-say-die outlook on life.

Ms Broadwell clearly admired General Petraeus as a leader and a military officer. That her dissertation, and ultimately the book, had grown out of a mentoring relationship with him is something I still take at face value. I never thought they were having an affair – and I still have no idea when the affair actually began. I sent Ms Broadwell an email on Monday, letting her know that I was writing this piece and welcoming any comment she chose to make. I have yet to hear back from her.

I always wondered how General Petraeus justified his relationship with her to his command staff in Afghanistan. Surely, eyebrows were raised, given the access she received. Female colleagues of mine weren't shy in remarking about Ms Broadwell's good looks and her affinity for flashy, cocktail party attire even at staid national security conferences.

Was something going on with General Petraeus? I always said I didn't think so.

I assumed, given how public their semi-official relationship was, that he would never engage in any risky behaviour. He'd always preached to his protégés that character was what you did when no one was watching. And he would always hasten to add, from his most public of perches, that "someone is always watching."

Washington Post