Tampa’s military social scene was backdrop for Petraeus scandal

November 13, 2012

MacDill Air Force Base, sprawling across a few thousand acres along the Old Tampa Bay in Gulf-coast Florida, is home to 15,000 active-duty military personnel, 3,000 civilian employees, U.S. Central Command, U.S. Special Operations Command, the 6th Air Mobility Wing, and the occasional social event organized with help from a local woman named Jill Kelley. That last part is the source of overwhelming national attention this week, as the alleged feuds, jealousies and affections related to MacDill's senior military social scene spilled out into a national scandal that has already toppled CIA Director David Petraeus.

Kelley's name keeps popping up in reporting the Petraeus soap opera and its many sub-plots. And while she appears to be a largely peripheral player in the core scandal – Petraeus's affair with biographer Paula Broadwell, which may have included some security-compromising moments – the "Tampa socialite" is a useful lens for viewing the civilian-military social circle in which this story has so many roots. 

Kelley and her husband Scott, a surgeon, were some of the first people to meet then-Gen. Petraeus when he moved to Tampa in 2008 to head the U.S. Central Command, according to the Tampa Tribune. She had established herself as an unofficial "social liaison" at the base, cultivating especially close ties to the top military commanders there. So it was only natural that the Kelleys invited the newly arrived Petraeus, already a military star for his role in the Iraq war, to their white-columned, colonial-style home for dinner.

Gen. John R. Allen also came to MacDill and was also befriended by Jill Kelley, with whom he exchanged a few hundred e-mails, some of which may have been "potentially inappropriate," according to an investigation revealed this week. 

Kelley rapidly "established a name for herself as an extravagant hostess with a military guest list," according to the Tampa Bay Times, holding lavish parties both at the base and at her home, where senior officers, some of them among the nation's top military commanders, were often invited. They offered "copious buffets, valet parking, string quartets, as well as premium cigars and champagne," the Post reported. They were even put on the VIP list for the 2011 Army Ball.  

But the Kelleys also faced concurrent personal challenges, including credit card debt, lawsuits, foreclosure, and her twin sister's bitter 2011 divorce. Later, after Petraeus had left for the CIA, both he and Gen. Allen helped Jill Kelley's sister in a child custody battle, writing letters in support of her appeal to regain custody, according to CBS News. There is of course nothing necessarily wrong with helping a friend in a difficult time, but the letters foreshadowed the degree to which Petraeus's and Allen's Tampa personal lives and national reputations would intersect.

Broadwell, who was spending time with Petraeus for her dissertation that later became his biography, appears to have entered the social circle by early 2011. Petraeus, Allen and the Kelleys had all reportedly remained in contact; Allen was still in Tampa at MacDill. That May, Kelley began receiving threatening anonymous e-mails from an account that investigators later determined belonged to Broadwell. The e-mails warned Kelley off Petraeus, claiming to have seen her touching him "provocatively" under a dinner table, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Petraeus later learned of the e-mails and reportedly told Broadwell to stop sending them, but the damage was done. Kelley had complained to the FBI, which took them seriously, perhaps because they mentioned the director of the CIA and seemed oddly knowledgeable about the "comings and goings" of senior military officials, NBC News reported

The Kelley household that so often played host to Petraeus, and that may have originated the FBI complaint that ultimately toppled him, now seems to be hunkering down in the aftermath of his fall. They are being "advised" by the same lawyer who represented Jack Abramoff and John Edwards in their national scandals, according to Reuters, and by a "crisis PR manager" who is also the basis for a TV drama called "Scandal."

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Olga Khazan · November 13, 2012