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In Petraeus’ fall, a familiar tale of power and its dangerous allure

  • McClatchy Newspapers
  • Published Friday, Nov. 16, 2012, at 6:35 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, Nov. 19, 2012, at 6:15 a.m.

— Paula Broadwell and twin sisters Natalie Khawam and Jill Kelley had four-star connections and, seemingly, stars in their eyes.

Broadwell became involved in an extramarital affair with former Gen. David Petraeus. Kelley cultivated friendships with senior officers at the Tampa, Fla.-based U.S. Central Command and purportedly exchanged flirtatious emails with Marine Gen. John Allen. Khawam circled around the Washington elite.

Doors kept opening for the three women, as if they had learned a password or secret knock. On Friday, the White House revealed that Kelley and Khawam had enjoyed two meals at the White House mess with a mid-level Obama administration official.

Now, Petraeus’ behavior has cost him his career as CIA director and possibly a future political candidacy. Allen’s link to the scandal has, for the moment, stalled his planned promotion to be NATO’s top commander. As for the three women connected to the drama, the doors are shutting while the shades are being lifted on their social ambitions.

Their intertwined stories appear to revive some classic plots common in the nation’s capital and any other place where strivers gather around the high and mighty and careers grow.

“I think you can answer the question by reading the Old Testament,” former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, the one-time chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Friday when asked about the revelations that began unfolding with Petraeus’ surprise Nov. 9 resignation. “This has been going on for a long time.”

At the very least, the havoc has shaken the upper reaches of the U.S. military and intelligence communities.

Beyond the personal calamities, FBI agents investigating possible national security breaches are trying to reconstruct how, in their separate ways, Broadwell and Kelley grew close to senior government figures and whether sensitive information was compromised, according to an informed law enforcement official speaking on the condition of anonymity because the inquiry is ongoing and confidential.

To their friends and supporters, Broadwell, Khawam and Kelley are much more than the two-dimensional characters currently caught in an unforgiving spotlight. Broadwell is a loving mother and a smart, audacious West Point graduate. Kelley, too, is a doting mother and a warm hostess. Khawam, also a mother, is a lively Georgetown University-trained lawyer.

Nor can the three women be entirely lumped together. No one has alleged that Khawam had any inappropriate relationship with a government official; both Allen and Kelley have denied having a sexual relationship.

All three women, however, have shown a knack for productive socializing.

Broadwell, 40, turned an initial meeting with Petraeus at Harvard into an embedded assignment to write his biography. Khawam keeps securing invitations to big-time political events. With practiced ease, Kelley and her surgeon husband, Scott, hosted events for U.S. commanders and foreign delegations at their bay-front mansion in Tampa.

“She is very culturally astute and comfortable with that culture,” Gary Springer, president of the International Council of the Tampa Bay Region, said of Kelley. “She has been a very gracious host to a couple of groups. She was welcoming and warm.”

But skeptics have also shadowed the three women, long before Kelley’s complaints about harassing emails triggered the FBI investigation that led to discovery of the affair between Broadwell and Petraeus.

Broadwell’s laudatory biography of Petraeus, “All In,” was denounced by critics as hagiography, while officers worried about her remarkably close access to the general. The Washington Post reported Friday that Broadwell also overstated her credentials in an effort to build her reputation among D.C.’s foreign policy elite.

She told counterinsurgency warfare experts in 2009 that aides to the newly installed U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, had asked her to assemble an outside team to evaluate his strategy, but in fact, the aides rejected her proposal, the newspaper said.

In Washington, D.C. Superior Court Judge Neal Kravitz cited Khawam’s “unsteady moral and ethical compass” amid a nasty child custody battle. In Tampa, some longtime residents dismissed Kelley as a social climber who showed off a Mercedes-Benz with honorary South Korean consul tags and who was dubbed “Tampa Kardashian” behind her back.

“They drop names,” said attorney Barry Cohen, who is in a legal battle with Khawam. “They have all these parties and want the right people to be there. They’d call someone to say, ‘Come to my party, so and so will be there.’ And then they’d call so and so, and say, ‘Come to my party, this other so and so will be there.’”

In 2010, Kelley and Khawam showed up at a Tampa fundraiser for Republican senatorial candidate Marco Rubio, though they hadn’t contributed at least $1,000 like other attendees, according to hostess Angelette Aviles. Within a few minutes, the twin sisters had their picture snapped flanking Rubio. This week, Aviles posted the picture on Twitter.

“They kind of quickly came and smiled the whole time,” Aviles said Friday. “Jill was very revealing in her outfit. Most people are in suits. You could tell they were there just to look pretty and take pictures.”

Jill Kelley’s attorney, prominent Washington criminal defense specialist Abbe Lowell, and high-octane publicist Judy Smith did not respond to multiple requests for interviews or information. Khawam did not respond to multiple emails.

Kelley’s extensive email correspondence with Allen, currently commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, is the subject of an investigation by the Pentagon’s inspector general. His nomination to lead U.S. forces in Europe remains on hold. Separately, the CIA’s inspector general has opened an inquiry into Petraeus’ actions. Broadwell’s home in Charlotte, N.C., has been searched amid concerns that she might have been in possession of classified material above her clearance.

Meanwhile, in the fall of Petraeus, the public can find instructive, if familiar, narratives.

“For the most part, it’s totally innocent,” Lettie Bien, a retired Army colonel and former South Florida resident, said of military community socializing. But she added that the story now unfolding is “just sordid.”

Born in Lebanon 37 years ago, Kelley and Khawam were raised by their refugee parents outside of Philadelphia. Jill Kelley and her husband moved to Tampa about 10 years ago. Khawam, a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center and Philadelphia’s Beaver College – now called Arcadia University – has worked in a succession of firms since law school. She now lives with her sister.

Kelley was a member of the Friends of MacDill, an 800-member civilian support group that enjoyed access to the Tampa-area Air Foce base for which the group was named. After passing a background check, Kelley joined the group in November 2010, had her membership renewed in February and saw her base access card yanked on Tuesday over an investigation into her digital correspondence with Allen, according to a military source.

Kelley organized dinners and invited big names. Owning a bay-front mansion and being married to a prominent cancer surgeon helped.

Dr. Kelley was so interested in the military that he attended a Pentagon citizen’s academy last year.

“I think Jill is just one of these people who enjoyed meeting people and wanted to get involved in the community. She was going to make a place for herself and her family,” said Tampa Bay magazine publisher Aaron Fodiman. “I think she chose a home on Bayshore Boulevard because it was a statement.”

But court records show that even while the Kelleys were hosting parties, they were falling deeper into debt. Hillsborough County Court records show that the mansion is in foreclosure, and the Kelleys lost a $2 million downtown Tampa building they had bought after a legal battle with a tenant.

Khawam, too, has stumbled financially, even as she has seemingly raced after the politically connected

This year, Washington court records show, Khawam has asked her ex-husband – with whom she is engaged in a child custody battle – if she could take their young son to a Capitol Hill reception sponsored by Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, a Democratic Senate fundraising event on Martha’s Vineyard, a baptism for the son of former Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy and a “family clambake” sponsored by Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.

The young son, Khawam assured her ex-husband, “knows Senator Whitehouse and his family from spending time together with them last summer,” court records show. The son is now 4.

Other well-positioned friends have kept bailing Khawam out, in different ways.

During her child custody battle, court records show that Petraeus and Allen submitted letters of support.

Gerald Harrington, a major Democratic donor and president of a Rhode Island-based health care lobbying firm called Capitol City Group, loaned Khawam $300,000, according to her subsequent bankruptcy filings. Khawam also reported receiving personal loans totaling some $1.8 million from other individuals, including $800,000 from her sister and brother-in-law.

Like Kelley and Khawam, Petraeus and Broadwell have remained out of public view since Nov. 9. Petraeus quietly slipped onto Capitol Hill on Friday to testify behind closed doors to the House and Senate intelligence committees about the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

“These things happen, and they are unfortunate in many different ways” Lee Hamilton, former Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Friday. “You should certainly as an agency make it known that this kind of conduct is unacceptable. But there is no foolproof method to protect yourself against this kind of development."

Robles, of The Miami Herald, reported from Tampa, Fla. Email: mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com; ggordon@mcclatchydc.com; frobles@miamiherald.com. Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

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