Ours is a story of how the simple act of quietly appealing to legal authorities for advice on how to stop anonymous, harassing e-mails can result in a victim being re-victimized. The word “victim” is, we know, better reserved for those who have suffered far worse than we pray we’ll ever experience. But the reality is that we sought protection, not attention, and received the inverse.
After our names were linked to the Petraeus story, a horde of paparazzi stormed our front lawn. Our young daughters were terrified. We didn’t want our silence to validate false headlines, but we did what most people unaccustomed to such a blitzkrieg would do: walled it off in the hopes the storm would fade or pass.
But it didn’t go away. And the media filled our silence with innuendo and falsehoods. We were surprised to read that Jill had flown on private military jets (never); that she was a volunteer social planner (wrong); that we were suffering financially (false); and, most painful of all because of the innuendo surrounding the allegation, that some 30,000 e-mails were sent to a general from the e-mail address we share. This is untrue, and the insinuation that Jill was involved in an extramarital affair is as preposterous as it is hurtful to our family. This small sample of junk reporting was emotionally exhausting and damaging — as it would be to the strongest of families.
Our family committed no crime and sought no publicity. We simply appealed for help after receiving anonymous e-mails with threats of blackmail and extortion. When the harassment escalated to acts of cyberstalking in the early fall, we were, naturally, terrified for the safety of our daughters and ourselves. Consequently, we did what Americans are taught to do in dangerous situations: sought the help of law enforcement.
Unfortunately, reaching out to an FBI agent whose acquaintance we had made resulted in slanderous allegations. We had never met, nor even knew of, Paula Broadwell when we sought protection. Our experience of having our privacy invaded and our lives turned upside down by authorities leaking our names and the existence of private electronic correspondence highlights the need for measures that ensure citizens retain their privacy when they seek assistance and protection from law enforcement and that the names of those who report a crime are not made public.
The breach of civil liberties we experienced never needed to happen. That is why, as Congress considers the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, lawmakers should consider what access to and disclosure of private e-mails of law-abiding citizens will be allowed, and what safeguards should be in place.
Despite our misfortunes, we consider ourselves blessed. Our family has been honored and proud to help patients with cancer and to work with the homeless in the Tampa area. We look forward to resuming our involvement with our community, which includes supporting our nation’s military. We appreciate the brave men and women in uniform who sacrifice so much for our country, and we have enjoyed sponsoring events to celebrate their accomplishments.
Our story stands as a cautionary tale. We have experienced how careless handling of our information by law enforcement and irresponsible news headlines endanger citizens’ privacy. We know our lives will never be the same, and we want to prevent others from having their privacy invaded merely for reporting abusive, potentially criminal, behavior. That is why we believe Congress must consider how the rights that we carefully safeguard in other forms deserve equal protection in this age of digital communication.