WASHINGTON — Paula Broadwell was a rising star who seemed destined for a sparkling career in foreign policy. A West Point graduate who excelled in triathlons, she was pursuing a doctorate at Harvard University and had found a mentor in Gen. David Petraeus, an iconic U.S. military leader.
But in 2007, Broadwell was asked to leave the doctoral program at Harvard, where she had first met Petraeus a year earlier, because her course work didn’t meet its demanding standards, according to people familiar with what happened there.
What Broadwell did next was a signature feature of her resilience and drive — and what detractors say is her tendency to overstate her credentials.
Broadwell, 40, eventually leveraged her unfinished dissertation into a best-selling biography of Petraeus, a project that gave her almost unlimited access to the general when he commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan and later when he was director of the CIA. That access also led to the extramarital affair that upended Petraeus’s career and shined a bright light on Broadwell’s.
A few months after leaving Harvard, Broadwell launched a full-bore effort to remake herself as a highly visible player in Washington’s insular foreign policy community. At the time, she and her husband, a radiologist, were raising toddlers and preparing to move to Charlotte, N.C., where he was setting up his practice.
In the summer of 2009, Broadwell told several prominent experts on counterinsurgency warfare that she had been asked by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the newly installed Afghan war commander, to assemble a team of first-tier academics and experts who would conduct an outside evaluation of McChrystal’s highly anticipated review of his war strategy.
She pressed experts in Washington and Cambridge, Mass., to join her review panel and lobbied senior U.S. military officials in Kabul to back her fledgling “red team” effort, military jargon for an outsider evaluation. The prospective team held a couple of meetings, according to one person who was involved.
But senior military officials who were on McChrystal’s staff said Broadwell was not asked to spearhead an evaluation. The officials, who like others requested anonymity to speak freely about Broadwell and Petraeus, said her attempt to assemble a “red team” review panel was rejected after McChrystal’s aides decided that her experience, her connections and her academic credentials were too thin.
‘Over her head’
“She was trying to pull together something way over her head,” said Mark Jacobson, a former deputy NATO senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, who was approached by Broadwell to serve on the team. Jacobson said he admired Broadwell’s pluck. “It was the kind of move you make in Washington when you are trying to make a name,” he said.
Others who had been approached to serve in the group said they questioned her assurances that she had the backing of top military officials. In a 2010 interview on a website focused on leadership, Broadwell was still saying that McChrystal had asked her to assemble the leadership team.
Broadwell has not responded to e-mail and phone messages since the scandal broke last week. Her lawyer, Robert Muse, did not respond to a request for comment on the specific information in this article. Harvard declined to comment on Broadwell’s time there.
Broadwell eventually found her way to Afghanistan. In June 2010, President Obama removed McChrystal as commander over comments made by his aides to a reporter. The president turned to Petraeus to replace him.
Throughout his career, Petraeus had developed a reputation as an intensely competitive and talented officer who sometimes came off as desperate for praise. He could be a generous mentor to junior officers, but he often alienated his peers with his determination to win every prize and award, no matter how insignificant. The general’s staff officers said that Broadwell played to Petraeus’s ego.
Petraeus, 60, has told friends in recent days that he admired Broadwell’s “combination of intellect and physical prowess,” said retired Col. Peter Mansoor. “She looks like a female version of him in some respects,” Mansoor said.
Broadwell had stayed in touch with Petraeus as part of her research. She had visited him at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., where he served as Centcom commander before the assignment to Afghanistan.
When Petraeus moved to Kabul, she began making regular trips to the war zone. By then, she had decided to turn her academic research into a book about Petraeus and her access to him helped her win a six-figure book deal — and a way into the elite foreign-policy circles in Washington.
North Dakota roots
Broadwell was born in Bismarck, N.D. As high school student there, she dreamed of a career as a globe-trotting diplomat. She was homecoming queen in 1990, and she excelled in track, basketball and orchestra. “God has given me all of these gifts to use to the best of my ability,” she said in a yearbook entry.
She was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy, graduated in 1995 and served five years as an active duty intelligence officer in Europe and South Korea. She remained an active duty officer until 2000, when she transferred to the Army reserves and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Some of her classmates and other reservists, who later spent time fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, complained that Broadwell was being treated as a counterinsurgency expert without having ever deployed to a combat zone.
Others praised her for using her contacts and tireless energy to help other women navigate the male-dominated world of foreign policy and balance family with work.
In e-mails to friends, she talked about the strains of her frequent trips to Afghanistan. “The only way I can survive is because of my awesome husband and my mother,” she wrote in 2011. “Everybody is getting tired of it and I have a serious sleep deficit, but I’m having a blast! No complaints.”
Broadwell first met Petraeus in 2006 when she was a 33-year-old student at the Harvard Kennedy School. She was invited to a small group discussion with the general, who had recently completed his second Iraq tour and was in the midst of rewriting the Army’s guide on how to fight guerrilla wars.
“I introduced myself to then-Lt. Gen. Petraeus and told him about my research interests,” she would write in her book, “All In: The Education of Gen. David Petraeus.” She said the general handed her his business card and offered to put her in touch with other researchers working on similar issues. “I later discovered that he was famous for this type of mentoring and networking, especially with aspiring soldiers-scholars,” she wrote.
While pursuing her doctorate at Harvard, Broadwell decided to write her dissertation on military leadership, which would include a long case study on Petraeus. After several e-mail exchanges, Petraeus, an avid runner, invited her to discuss her project during a run along the Potomac River.
When she was later asked to leave Harvard’s doctoral program, Broadwell completed a master’s there in 2008 and then picked up her doctoral studies at King’s College London.
In Washington, she became a frequent television guest and speaker at conferences sponsored by some of Washington’s most prestigious foreign policy think tanks.
“(Broadwell’s) contribution was based on a close relationship with and close observation of Petraeus in Afghanistan. That was her currency and what drew the attention of the Washington policy community,” said John Nagl, a Petraeus loyalist and former president of the Center for a New American Security. “It was a very unique story. … She had begun to transcend the Petraeus relationship and was being sought out on her own as a smart, attractive and poised speaker.”
She wrote combat dispatches on the Foreign Policy website and made frequent appearances at think tank events as an expert on counterinsurgency, Petraeus and the Afghan war.
“The level of access she got with the level of experience she had was exactly the sort of thing that makes people in Washington jealous,” said Jacobson, the NATO deputy in Kabul. “She had an opportunity that many in Washington dream of. She was playing with the big boys and girls.”
Broadwell’s book was published in January 2012, and she launched a big publicity tour that included an appearance on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” In speeches and interviews touting the book and her life, she talked about her access to Petraeus and her own accomplishments. The New York Times and Inspired Women Magazine both reported after interviews with Broadwell that she was ranked No. 1 overall in fitness in her class at West Point.
A spokesman at the military academy said Thursday that Broadwell did not win the fitness award, which went to another female cadet in her graduating class.
As Broadwell’s profile in Washington soared, she picked up many backers and won plaudits for her work raising money for charities that provided aid to wounded veterans.
“She was a networker, a facilitator, a convener,” said Jacobson, the NATO official who worked with her in Afghanistan and Washington. “I think she is a good person who made a horrible mistake.”
Petraeus has told former staff officers and friends that his affair with Broadwell did not begin until he retired from the military and joined the CIA in September 2011.
In July 2012, Broadwell appeared on a media panel at the Aspen Security Forum. “I was embedded with General Petraeus in Afghanistan,” she said. She acknowledged that her dual role as a biographer and military reservist with the “highest top-secret clearances,” which allowed her to view “secure compartmentalized intelligence,” caused confusion for some in Petraeus’s headquarters.
After the discussion was finished, she warned journalists on the panel about the dangers of leaking classified material and e-mailed them a report from the conservative American Enterprise Institute detailing the five most damaging security leaks of the past year.
On the panel, she said she felt she was often held to a “higher standard, because I could lose my clearance.”
Shortly before her appearance at the conference, Broadwell became the target of an FBI investigation which was sparked by anonymous e-mails she had sent to a Tampa woman warning her to stay away from Petraeus. The investigation led to the exposure of the affair between Petraeus and Broadwell.
As part of the investigation, FBI agents discovered low-level classified material on Broadwell’s personal computer. On Wednesday, the Army announced that Broadwell’s clearance had been suspended.