Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Motives Questioned in F.B.I. Inquiry of Petraeus E-Mails


November 12, 2012

Motives Questioned in F.B.I. Inquiry of Petraeus E-Mails


WASHINGTON — Is a string of angry e-mails really enough, in an age of boisterous online exchanges, to persuade the F.B.I. to open a cyberstalking investigation?

Sometimes the answer is yes, law enforcement officials and legal experts said Monday — especially if the e-mails in question reflect an inside knowledge of the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

That was true of the e-mails sent anonymously to Jill Kelley, a friend of the C.I.A. director, David H. Petraeus, which prompted the F.B.I. office in Tampa, Fla., to begin an investigation last June. The inquiry traced the e-mails to Mr. Petraeus’s biographer, Paula Broadwell, exposed their extramarital affair and led Friday to his resignation after 14 months as head of the intelligence agency.

On Monday night, F.B.I. agents went to Ms. Broadwell’s home in Charlotte, N.C., and were seen carrying away what several reporters at the scene said were boxes of documents. A law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the case remains open, said Ms. Broadwell had consented to the search.

Some commentators have questioned whether the bureau would ordinarily investigate a citizen complaint about unwanted e-mails, suggesting that there must have been a hidden motive, possibly political, to take action. F.B.I. officials are scheduled to brief the Senate and House intelligence committees on Tuesday about the case.

But law enforcement officials insisted on Monday that the case was handled “on the merits.” The cyber squad at the F.B.I.’s Tampa field office opened an investigation, after consulting with federal prosecutors, based on what appeared to be a legitimate complaint about e-mail harassment.

The complaint was more intriguing, the officials acknowledged, because the author of the e-mails, which criticized Ms. Kelley for supposed flirtatious behavior toward Mr. Petraeus at social events, seemed to have an insider’s knowledge of the C.I.A. director’s activities. One e-mail accused Ms. Kelley of “touching” Mr. Petraeus inappropriately under a dinner table.

“There was a legitimate case to open on the facts, with the support of the prosecutors,” said the official who described the search at Ms. Broadwell’s home. He added, “They asked, does somebody know more about Petraeus than you’d expect?”

Ms. Kelley, a volunteer with wounded veterans and military families, brought her complaint to a rank-and-file agent she knew from a previous encounter with the F.B.I. office, the official also said. That agent, who had previously pursued a friendship with Ms. Kelley and had earlier sent her shirtless photographs of himself, was “just a conduit” for the complaint, he said. He had no training in cybercrime, was not part of the cyber squad handling the case and was never assigned to the investigation.

But the agent, who was not identified, continued to “nose around” about the case, and eventually his superiors “told him to stay the hell away from it, and he was not invited to briefings,” the official said. The Wall Street Journal first reported on Monday night that the agent had been barred from the case.

Later, the agent became convinced — incorrectly, the official said — that the case had stalled. Because of his “worldview,” as the official put it, he suspected a politically motivated cover-up to protect President Obama. The agent alerted Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, who called the F.B.I. director, Robert S. Mueller III, on Oct. 31 to tell him of the agent’s concerns.

The official said the agent’s self-described “whistle-blowing” was “a little embarrassing” but had no effect on the investigation.

David H. Laufman, who served as a federal prosecutor in national security cases from 2003 to 2007, said, “there’s a lot of chatter and noise about cybercrimes,” and most of it does not lead to an investigation. But he added, “It’s plausible to me that if Ms. Kelley indicated that the stalking was related to her friendship with the C.I.A. director, that would have elevated it as a priority for the bureau.”

Orin S. Kerr, a George Washington University law professor who specializes in computer crime issues, said it was “surprising that they would devote the resources” to investigating who was behind a half-dozen harassing e-mails.

“The F.B.I. gets a lot of tips, and investigating any one case requires an agent or a few agents to spend a lot of time,” he said. “They can’t do this for every case, and the issue is, why this one case?”

Still, Mr. Kerr — a trial attorney in the Justice Department’s computer crimes and intellectual property section from 1998 to 2001 — said it was likely that several factors, in addition to the Petraeus connection, made the complaint stand out. Ms. Kelly was fairly prominent in Tampa social circles and had previously had dealings with the F.B.I. agent who took her complaint.

Moreover, he said, the F.B.I. has been putting more resources into investigating cyberstalking crimes in recent years.

A government official clarified on Monday that F.B.I. agents’ first interview with Ms. Broadwell — at which she is said to have admitted having had an affair with Mr. Petraeus, and voluntarily allowed agents to search her computer — took place in September. An earlier account had put that interview during the week of Oct. 21.

Before Ms. Broadwell spoke to the F.B.I. agents, Mr. Petraeus had learned that she had sent offensive e-mails to Ms. Kelley and asked her to stop, another official said. By the time agents interviewed the C.I.A. director during the week of Oct. 28, he was aware of the cyberstalking investigation and readily acknowledged his affair with Ms. Broadwell, the official said.

Mr. Petraeus’s former colleagues in the Obama administration have said little about the circumstances preceding his resignation. But on Monday, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, the director of the C.I.A. before Mr. Petraeus, criticized the F.B.I. for not informing members of the Congressional intelligence committees of its investigation.

“As a former director of the C.I.A., and having worked very closely with the intelligence committees, I believe that there is a responsibility to make sure that the intelligence committees are informed of issues that could affect the security of those intelligence operations,” he said on a flight to Australia.

His remarks were similar to those by the Senate Intelligence Committee’s chairwoman, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, on Sunday.

Mr. Petraeus’s former spokesman, Steve Boylan, told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Monday that the C.I.A. director was “devastated” over the affair and its consequences.

“He deeply regrets and knows how much pain this causes his family,” he said.

Mr. Boylan, a retired Army colonel, said Holly Petraeus, Mr. Petraeus’s wife of 38 years, “is not exactly pleased right now.”

“Furious would be an understatement.”

Elisabeth Bumiller contributed reporting while flying on the secretary of defense’s plane between Honolulu and Perth, Australia.

© 2011 The New York Times Company

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