Former spy catcher doubts classified material safe
A former head of U.S. counterintelligence is questioning President Obama’s claim, there has been, so far, no evidence of any release of classified information from the sex scandal that prompted David H. Petraeus to resign as CIA director.
The president’s carefully worded comments on Nov. 14 “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 last 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.
The FBI found a “substantial” amount of classified information on Mrs. Broadwell’s home computer, law enforcement and national security officials told reporters.
Mr. Petraeus, in his first public comment since the scandal broke, told CNN on Nov. 15 that he never passed classified information to Mrs. Broadwell. He also said he was 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 appeared Nov. 16 before the House and Senate intelligence committees.
U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Nov. 15 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.
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.
Ms. Van Cleave added that investigators should assume that foreign intelligence services might have already hacked into Mrs. Broadwell’s computer.
“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.
Some of the emails also indicated advance knowledge of Mr. Petraeus’ schedule, which would have merited at least a preliminary inquiry, former FBI officials said.
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.
National security concerns would have been raised as soon as agents had reason to think Mr. Petraeus’ email might have been compromised, said Ms. Van Cleave.
“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.
“You would certainly think that [the president] should be informed about a counterintelligence investigation that might reach the CIA director,” said Ms. Van Cleave.
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.