A former head of U.S. counterintelligence is questioning President Obama’s claim there has been, so far, no evidence of any release of damaging classified information from the sex scandal that prompted David H. Petraeus to resign as CIA director last week.
The president’s carefully worded comments Wednesday “don’t square with what we know about the case,” said Michelle Van Cleave, who served in the George W. Bush administration as the nation’s top spy catcher.
FBI agents this week searched the Charlotte, N.C., home of Paula Broadwell, Mr. Petraeus‘ biographer, whose affair with him was exposed after she sent anonymous emails to another woman, accusing her of being a seductress and warning her to stay way from Mr. Petraeus.
Mr. Petraeus, in his first public comment since the scandal broke, told CNN on Thursday that he never passed classified information to Mrs. Broadwell. He also said he is eager to testify about his knowledge of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. He is scheduled to appear Friday before the House and Senate intelligence committees.
U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Thursday said that FBI investigators “felt very secure in the knowledge that a national security threat did not exist.” He said he would have informed Mr. Obama and members of Congress if investigators had discovered such a threat.
Leads being checked
Christopher Swecker, a former FBI assistant director, said, “Investigators are by now probably focusing on the issue of the potential mishandling of classified information.
“The leads are being run out” and any loose ends are being tied up as investigators seek to finish their work, said Mr. Swecker, now an independent security consultant.
“As someone who has done damage assessments for the U.S. government, I can tell you that it would be standard practice to assume that classified material on an unclassified computer in a situation like that has already been compromised,” she said.
Home computers can easily be accessed by foreign hackers, and spies have long chosen and cultivated targets known to have access to senior officials.
“She was [Mr. Petraeus‘] official biographer, and she was widely known to have a close personal relationship with him. … You have to assume that foreign intelligence services would have an interest in her,” said Ms. Van Cleave.
The case would have had serious counterintelligence implications long before the search of Mrs. Broadwell’s home and computer, she asserted.
The investigation began after Mrs. Broadwell sent anonymous email messages in May to and about Jill Kelley, a Florida socialite who acted as a kind of volunteer social liaison at the McDill Air Force Base near Tampa.
McDill is where U.S. Central Command is based, and Mrs. Kelley and her husband became friendly with Mr. Petraeus and his wife during the time the now-retired general headed the Central Command, defense officials have said. The messages warned Mrs. Kelley to stay away from Mr. Petraeus, according to law enforcement officials.
Federal agents then discovered that the sender of the anonymous messages appeared to have access to a personal email account also used by Mr. Petraeus. Mrs. Broadwell and Mr. Petraeus would exchange messages by leaving them in the drafts folder of a shared email account.
Were emails compromised?
“There’s a possible national security dimension, and at that point you have a very different kind of investigation. … [The case] undoubtedly crosses the threshold from a narrow criminal investigation to one with an obvious counterintelligence dimension.”
When FBI agents are chasing foreign spies in counterintelligence cases, they may at times need to inform political leaders about their investigations.
A case could still have counterintelligence implications even if it turned out to be simply an “unfortunate lapse in judgment,” she added.
“What is the appropriate use of personal email by someone in such a sensitive and senior office?” Ms. Van Cleave asked. “We haven’t yet come to grips with that as a government.”
She said senior officials’ personal email accounts, like their personal mobile devices, “are all rich targets of opportunity for foreign intelligence services.”
Ms. Van Cleave added that the government has yet to establish “solid security guidelines for senior officials” to deal with the wide variety of personal communication devices.
Her point was underlined by news this week that Marine Corps Gen. John Allen had sent tens of thousands of what are described as “flirtatous” and “inappropriate” email messages to Mrs. Kelley, while he was commanding U.S. forces in Afghanistan. He met her while he was a deputy to Mr. Petraeus, when he was served at McDill.
Gen. Allen “is not alone in that everyone does it,” said Ms. Van Cleave of the prolific use of professional email accounts for personal communication.
“I was a spy for a long time,” said former CIA operations officer Robert Baer. “If I was trying to penetrate the U.S. military, I’d give my right arm for a source like that.”
He said that Mrs. Kelley probably had “better access than the president of the United States to all those senior military officials” at McDill, which is also the headquarters of U.S. Special Operations Command.
“The family is deep in debt, which you can easily discover” from public records, Mr. Baer added.
“She’s a classic agent of access,” he said, referring to people recruited because of their contacts.
“Who knows who she might have brought along to those parties?” he said of Mrs. Kelly’s social affairs.
Some observers have suggested that the Petraeus affair might have raised concern because of the danger of blackmail, but that is a rather old-fashioned view, according to a former senior intelligence official with counterintelligence experience.
“I do think the blackmail risk is overstated, especially in this day and age and with those people,” he said, referring to Mr. Petraeus and Gen. Allen.
Even if foreign agents hacked the email account Mrs. Broadwell and Mr. Petraeus were using and were able to access the CIA director’s personal computer, the risk would be low, according to the former senior intelligence official.
“On a personal computer, there shouldn’t be anything important there,” he said. “I had broad access [to classified information], and I can tell you, you wouldn’t have gotten anything from my personal computer.”
Even messages the CIA director was exchanging with his mistress that might contain scheduling information or personal reflections on how aspects of his work was going would be “really at the margins of usefulness” for a foreign spy service.
The affair was “more of a personal problem than a national one,” he added.