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‘Extraordinary Incompetence’

Will the Petraeus scandal expose the truth about Benghazi?

By 11.14.12

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Tampa's Bayshore Boulevard is in the news today because it is the home of Jill Kelley, who played a crucial role in the scandal that brought down CIA Director David Petraeus.

Mrs. Kelley's complaint to the FBI about threatening e-mails she received in May led to an investigation that exposed an affair between Petraeus, the retired four-star general who had been top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, and his biographer, Paula Broadwell. In recent days, a Tampa TV station reported, Mrs. Kelley has repeatedly called police seeking protection, at one point invoking her status as "honorary consul general." She has been described as an unofficial "social liaison" at nearby MacDill Air Force Base, and now the media are encamped in front of the home that Mrs. Kelley shares with her surgeon husband, Dr. Scott Kelley, and their three children.

So far as we know, the Kelleys have done nothing wrong and were innocently drawn into this scandal because of the mistaken jealousy of Broadwell, a married mother of two who admittedly carried on an adulterous affair with Petraeus, who is likewise married. However, the FBI is now reportedly examining thousands of "potentially inappropriate" e-mails between Mrs. Kelley and Marine Gen. John Allen, who currently commands all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Even without any hanky-panky on Allen's part -- both he and Mrs. Kelley's family strongly deny any such insinuation -- there are still many intriguing questions swirling around this story. So the camera crews are likely to remain staked out on Bayshore Boulevard, while reporters, editors, and producers explore these questions, including the big one: How does this relate to the apparent failures in Libya that led to the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens two months ago?

It is possible that, amid the tawdry details of the affair between Petraeus and Broadwell, there may lie at least serious clues to the debacle in Benghazi. To extend the possibilities even further, the sex-scandal aspects of this story may bring fresh political hope to Republicans who have been downcast and despondent since last week's catastrophic election. The GOP's finger-pointing and navel-gazing could all be moot, if it should turn out that President Obama squeezed to a narrow victory while his administration was (with the help of its media allies) covering up a genuinely serious scandal.

Consider the suggestion made yesterday by Katie Pavlich: In a speech late last month that had previously gotten little notice, Broadwell said that the CIA was holding prisoners at an annex to the consulate in Benghazi. "This explains two things," wrote Pavlich, author of a bestselling book about the Justice Department's gun-running scandal. "The U.S. consulate in Benghazi was being repeatedly attacked because prisoners were being held and because President Obama signed an executive order in 2009 banning secret CIA prisons, they had to find an alternative story to cover-up what really happened, hence the YouTube video."

Is this indeed the explanation for the Obama administration's dishonest attempt to blame the death of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans on an obscure anti-Islam video? Certainly, as the CIA chief's biographer and mistress, Broadwell was well-positioned to know the truth of the agency's operations. And if the CIA was indeed running a secret prison in Libya contrary to the president's executive order, well, what did the president know and when did he know it? (As the Wall Street Journal's James Taranto notes, the CIA has adamantly denied holding prisoners in Libya.)

Far beyond Benghazi, however, there was a lot the president probably should have known about Petraeus's activities that -- at least if you believe the White House -- he wasn't told until after the election. And a lot of that has to do with Jill Kelley, her husband and her twin sister, Natalie Khawam, whose friendship with both Petraeus and Allen would seem cause for security concerns, even apart from the Broadwell affair.

Mrs. Kelley has been described as a Tampa "socialite," a term that might imply great wealth, but it appears that the expense of her posh lifestyle exceeded her family's income. She and her husband have reportedly been sued by banks for $4 million, including a delinquent mortgage on their $1.2 million home on fashionable Bayshore Drive. The couple's troubling debts, however, did not prevent them from hosting parties at which their guests enjoyed lavish buffets, premium cigars, and music provided by string quartets. Meanwhile, Mrs. Kelley's sister was going through an acrimonious divorce and in April filed for bankruptcy, listing more than $3 million in debts.

The Kelleys apparently began their friendship with Petraeus in 2008, when the four-star general took over U.S. Central Command based at MacDill. The general and his wife, Holly, were frequent guests at the Kelley family's six-bedroom home, while Jill Kelley and her sister reportedly took Mrs. Petraeus out for lunches and shopping trips after the general was deployed to Afghanistan in 2010. The Kelleys similarly befriended Allen, who succeeded Petraeus as the general in charge of CentCom. This is the innocent explanation for how, among other things, both Petraeus and Allen wrote letters on behalf of Mrs. Kelley's sister to a judge in Washington, D.C., who was supervising the custody dispute between her and her ex-husband. (The judge reportedly described the sister as dishonest and "psychologically unstable.") However innocent the explanation, eyebrows were raised after it was reported that the FBI was poring over as many as 30,000 pages of e-mails between Allen and Mrs. Kelley.

The general's office described these messages as "innocuous," many of them CC'd to the general and his wife, but the sheer volume of the correspondence was troubling to many. And then there was the report in the Washington Post that Mrs. Kelley, who as a child immigrated to the United States from Lebanon with her family, "was a 'self-appointed' go-between for Central Command officers with Lebanese and other Middle Eastern government officials." A heavily indebted socialite close to top U.S. military and intelligence officials who is also simultaneously in communication with foreign governments? If anyone at FBI headquarters hears an unexplained sound, it's probably J. Edgar Hoover's ghost screaming "security risk!"

It wasn't until Mrs. Kelley began getting mysteriously threatening e-mails, however, that the FBI took an interest. Some of the messages suggested a disturbing familiarity with the comings and goings of top U.S. officials and, by September, the bureau was ready to confront Broadwell with the evidence that she had sent the threats. Published accounts, including a timeline compiled by NBC News, say that the affair between Broadwell and Petraeus lasted about eight months, from last November to July of this year. By late summer, Attorney General Eric Holder was informed of the FBI's investigation, but (if you believe what has been reported so far) Holder didn't bother to tell the president that the CIA director had been caught in this compromising situation.

Some conservatives have expressed suspicion that the belated revelation of the Broadwell-Petraeus affair is, in fact, part of the Obama administration's attempt to distract from upcoming congressional hearings about the Benghazi attack. These suspicious minds see the sex scandal as the administration's way of discrediting Petraeus, whose testimony about the failures in Libya could implicate other top officials. That theory seems too complex and conspiratorial to me. More likely, as Tim Stanley of the London Daily Telegraph says, the sordid mess surrounding Petraeus "testifies to the extraordinary incompetence at all levels of the federal security state."

The simplest and most obvious explanation is that administration officials, in an effort to keep a lid on everything -- from Benghazi to Bayshore Drive -- suppressed the ugly facts until after the election. Whether this suppression will be construed as a "cover-up," involving the kind of wrongful actions that might be seen as "high crimes and misdemeanors," could depend in large measure on two usually antagonistic forces: Republicans in Congress, dispirited by their election losses, and a media establishment that has spent the past week transparently celebrating Obama's re-election. If the GOP can recover enough morale to fight for the truth, and if the media can put down their partisan pompoms long enough to do some serious reporting, Americans may soon see their president in a much less flattering light.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.