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An FBI inquiry gone sideways: General dismay, private notes, and major problems

How a love-struck FBI agent’s investigation spun out of wildly out of control and resulted in a minor national security crisis

The ongoing drama — and fallout — from General (Ret.) Petraeus’ relationship with and emails between himself and his fawning biographer, Paula Broadwell, has certainly caught the media’s attention.

Playing on what they believe to be the prurient interest of the US public, the vast majority of mainstream media reporting has been on the convoluted relationship between General (Ret) Petraeus, Ms. Broadwell, Jill Kelley (the woman that reported receiving some vaguely-disturbing emails from an anonymous source which proved to be Ms. Broadwell), General Allen (the current U.S. Commander in Afghanistan), and Ms. Kelley’s apparently-erratic sister, Natalie Khawam. Ms. Kelley has also exhibited some odd behavior of her own, apparently having claimed diplomatic immunity because she is some sort of unofficial ambassador for South Korea.

What the media has ignored in this passion play has been the real problem: the role a love-struck FBI agent — who has been identified as Frederick W. Humphries II — had in instigating a far-reaching investigation, to include the use of technical means at his disposal, to pry into personal emails of those involved without articulable reasonable suspicion, let alone probable cause.

In this Aug. 31, 2011 file photo, former Commander of International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan Gen. Davis Petraeus, standing with his wife Holly, participates in an armed forces farewell tribute and retirement ceremony at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Va. (AP Image)
In this Aug. 31, 2011 file photo, former Commander of International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan Gen. Davis Petraeus, standing with his wife Holly, participates in an armed forces farewell tribute and retirement ceremony at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Va. (AP Image)

Media Missing the Big Issue (Again)
Only a few reporters or activists, such as Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian, have really focused on what could well be a lack of mature investigative oversight and possible constitutional overreach inside the FBI.

Most local law enforcement officers have taken similar calls about alleged Internet harassment. The reporting party typically believes they have received “harassing” emails or posts on, say, Facebook, from someone known or unknown to them and they:

a.) want the “harassment” to stop, and/or
b.) they want the sender immediately arrested, tried, convicted, and sent to prison for as long as the law allows based on their report alone.

They rarely want a real investigation.

Unsurprisingly, these calls are often the result of a personal relationship gone bad and the majority do not reach the legal standard of “harassment” (despite the fact that the electronic communications annoy the revenge-minded recipients). What officers also know to be true is that most of the players are likely culpable in similar instances of behavior and there are no true innocents. 

Leave it to the Professionals
Its unlikely that a responsible local law enforcement officer would have opened a similar case given the lack of real evidence of a crime. Instead, Ms. Kelley used her yet-to-be-clarified personal relationship with the FBI agent to open the investigation, which soon spun out of control.

She probably regrets her decision.

Instead of escalating the initial report to the crisis stage, an experienced local police officer may choose to call the sender, ask them to stop, and/or suggest to the recipient that he/she erase the posts from their email account or Facebook page instead of opening them, reading them, and then becoming agitated.

An officer may even suggest the recipient get a new email account or do a better job of controlling who may or may not post comments on their Facebook wall.

Like all compromises, no one is happy except the officer, who hopes this Band-Aid will work until someone commits a real crime.

The problem is that once the reporting party tells the original offender they’ve reported them to the police — or after the police have spoken to them — the original reported offender now feels aggrieved and, in turn, reports that the original reporting party started the whole mess in the first place. The whining never ends and there’s enough blame to go around.

This does not mean, however, that cyber-stalking or even cyber-bullying and similar behaviors do not occur, just that the majority of reports are likely the banal result of poor personal choices.

In the Petreaus case, all the reported and publically-available information has suggested that there was nothing earth-shattering or truly disturbing about the emails except in the mind of Ms. Kelley (and possibly the FBI agent, though his motives may not have been as pure as he hoped at the time).

The vast majority of local law enforcement officers obviously do not have the technical means to initiate a more far-reaching investigation, even if they would like to do so.

FBI agents are apparently not so resource constrained and the reported ease with which the FBI agent initiated the investigation — despite some reluctance by others to do so — suggests that such questionable investigative activity may be more of a common practice than is acknowledged publicly.

The stated concern over General (Ret.) Petreaus’ travel schedule, the possible hacking of his personal email account, and what is now apparently an investigation into Ms. Broadwell’s acquisition and storage of classified information sound more like an after-the-fact justification than the sound development of reasonable suspicion and probable cause.

The ends, apparently, justify the ways and means.

Dealing with complaints similar to those made by Ms. Kelley is clearly an area where local law enforcement officers may have more practical experience than FBI agents. One can rightly ask whether Ms. Kelley first reported the emails to local authorities and, having not received satisfaction, decided that her friendship with an FBI agent could be more fruitful.

For his part, the FBI agent should have told her to call the local police.

It is doubtful Ms. Kelley believed she would open the can of worms that has resulted in a minor national security crisis for the President, embarrassed herself, her sister, General (Ret) Petraeus, General Allen, their families, and others yet to be named.

This does not excuse General (Ret.) Petraeus’ behavior, nor does it explain that of General Allen, but the problem should have been resolved by local police authorities and should never have become a federal circus.

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