The Accidental Investigation That Ruined David Petraeus

| Mon Nov. 12, 2012 12:53 AM EST

I have to say that today's New York Times piece about the FBI's investigation of David Petraeus's affair with Paula Broadwell is pretty fascinating. Apparently it all began with Jill Kelley, a friend of the Petraeus family:

The involvement of the F.B.I., according to government officials, began when Ms. Kelley, alarmed by about half a dozen anonymous e-mails accusing her of inappropriate flirtatious behavior with Mr. Petraeus, complained to an F.B.I. agent who is also a personal friend. That agent, who has not been identified, helped get a preliminary inquiry started. Agents working with federal prosecutors in a local United States attorney’s office began trying to figure out whether the e-mails constituted criminal cyber-stalking.

Because the sender’s account had been registered anonymously, investigators had to use forensic techniques — including a check of what other e-mail accounts had been accessed from the same computer address — to identify who was writing the e-mails.

Eventually they identified Ms. Broadwell as a prime suspect and obtained access to her regular e-mail account. In its in-box, they discovered intimate and sexually explicit e-mails from another account that also was not immediately identifiable. Investigators eventually ascertained that it belonged to Mr. Petraeus and studied the possibility that someone had hacked into Mr. Petraeus’s account or was posing as him to send the explicit messages.

[The investigation proceeds, and the FBI interviews both Broadwell and Petraeus.]

....Meanwhile, the F.B.I. agent who had helped get a preliminary inquiry started, and learned of Mr. Petraeus’s affair and the initial concerns about security breaches, became frustrated. Apparently unaware that those concerns were largely resolved, the agent alerted the office of Representative Eric Cantor, Republican of Virginia, the House majority leader, about the inquiry in late October. Mr. Cantor passed on the agent’s concerns to Mr. Mueller.

You know, I'm pretty sure that the FBI doesn't routinely put a lot of investigative muscle into a complaint about half a dozen anonymous emails. My guess is that they mostly get filed and forgotten. So why did they do it this time? And how did they "obtain access" to Broadwell's email account? Unless they had a warrant, I sure hope that's not legal. And if they did get a warrant, that suggests that someone was really, really a lot more serious about this investigation than the FBI would normally be.

And then we have our junior J. Edgar Hoover getting so distraught that he decided to compromise the investigation by alerting Eric Cantor. Why Eric Cantor? He's not even on the intelligence committee. And do FBI agents normally alert members of Congress because an investigation hasn't finished up in three months? What the hell?

On a different note, the same story tells us that members of Congress are upset they weren't notified about the investigation earlier. Color me unsympathetic. It was a criminal investigation, and the last thing the FBI should have done is jeopardize it by briefing loudmouth members of Congress. There was also no need to politicize it until and unless they were certain they weren't just chasing ghosts. I'd sure like to know just why the FBI put so much effort into a complaint from someone about receiving a few anonymous emails, but I couldn't care less that they held back on briefing Congress until they were sure they had a case. That's the way things should work.