Petraeus, snagged by online data trail, lived much of his life on e-mail

November 12, 2012

Gen. David Petraeus talks to reporters in Baghdad in 2007. (Maya Alleruzzo/Pool/Getty Images)

One evening in late 2011, about a year before CIA Director David Petraeus would resign over an affair that came to light after an FBI investigation into his paramour's e-mail traced back to him, Petraeus held an off-the-record gathering for reporters at the agency's offices. He had just recently assumed the directorship and the meeting was an opportunity for journalists to get to know him in his new role. After a dinner, Petraeus walked everyone to his secure office on the seventh floor. There, according to a reporter who was present, the almost-60-year-old retired four-star general proudly announced that he was the first CIA director to install an open Internet connection in his office.

Petraeus, first as a military leader and then as head of the CIA, lived on e-mail, according to reporters who have covered him in both roles. He was unusually accessible and often willing to talk as long as the terms were clear and the questions not too sensitive, firing off quick notes and lengthy missives late into the night and early the next morning. In his years in the military, his remarkable communicativeness and his skill with the medium were an asset, aiding his constant campaign to shape media coverage and to play up successes, as well as his own polished public image. Ironically, though he appears to have been quite careful in his e-mails to reporters, it was this same predilection for living on e-mail that helped expose his affair, and ultimately end his storied career.

This May, a few months into Petraeus's affair with former military intelligence officer Paula Broadwell, the married mother of two used an anonymous account on Google's popular Gmail service to send threatening notes to another woman, Jill Kelley. Kelley, it appears, likely knew Petraeus from his time heading Florida-based U.S. Central Command, where she volunteered planning social events. She also had a friend in the FBI, whom she told about the e-mails. Perhaps because the messages referenced Petraeus, by then the director of the CIA, which is institutionally sensitive to any potential that its officials could be exposed to blackmail or other threats, the FBI seems to have pursued the case aggressively.

FBI investigators picked up the data trail from there. They determined that the account belonged to Broadwell and her husband, in part by analyzing the metadata attached to the e-mails, which can help determine the location of the sender. The locations matched up with Broadwell's travel schedule. From there, the FBI identified other e-mail accounts that had been accessed from the same IP address, which they secured a warrant to monitor. This included another anonymous account, apparently also Broadwell's, from which she exchanged sexually explicit e-mails with a third anonymous e-mail account, also Gmail. This account, the FBI concluded, belonged to Petraeus, a discovery that led agents to confront both him and Broadwell.

Bringing his life into his e-mail account, and taking relative care doing it, were in character for Petraeus. Reporters who exchanged e-mails with him as a general and as CIA director described his messages as frequent and rapid – often responding within just a few minutes – but careful, neither to reveal sensitive information nor to rumple his carefully managed image and that of whatever war or agency he was leading at the time. That Petraeus would segregate this part of his life into a separate e-mail account underscores his familiarity with a medium that many of his contemporaries in the top reaches of government are not known for using often or particularly well.

Available day or night, stateside or halfway around the world, Petraeus was even wired when he was on the move. Driving through Washington in his armored SUV, he was known to keep two terminals open: one for classified information, one for an open Internet connection. Staff knew to build regular e-mail into his day, calling it "executive time." During one visit to The Washington Post's offices while still an active-duty general, Petraeus's staff asked whether their boss could set up a computer in an empty room between meetings.

Even professionally, the ebbs and flows of his career could be tracked by his e-mail accounts. One reporter recalled, years ago and before Petraeus reached such heights in Washington, receiving occasional notes from the general's personal e-mail – an AOL account. As he transitioned out of the military, where his love of the spotlight and ability with the press had accompanied his rise to political stardom, he appeared to adapt slowly to the CIA's much more secretive culture. The Obama administration has also emphasized tight message control on national security matters. Sure enough, several months into his CIA tenure, the firehose of Petraeus e-mails seemed to slow into the trickle more typical for his post, the reporters said. Still, even retired from the military, the former general could often be reached at his Army e-mail account.

For now, though, Petraeus's once-animated e-mail accounts seem to have gone dark – or the public ones, at least.

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Max Fisher · November 12, 2012