Petraeus: The Plot Thickens
by Douglas Lucas and Russ Baker - WhoWhatWhy
Was the ambitious General David Petraeus targeted for take-down by competing interests in the US military/intelligence hierarchy—years before his abrupt downfall last year in an adultery scandal?
Previously unreported documents analyzed by WhoWhatWhy suggest as much. They provide new insight into the scandalous extramarital romance that led to Petraeus’s resignation as CIA director in November after several years of rapid rise—going from a little-known general to a prospective presidential candidate in a stunningly brief time frame.
Among other revelations the documents show that:
-Petraeus was suspected of having an extramarital affair nearly two years earlier than previously known.
-Petraeus’s affair was known to foreign interests with a stake in a raging policy and turf battle in which Petraeus was an active party.
-Those providing the “official” narrative of the affair—and an analysis of why it led to the unprecedented removal of America’s top spymaster— have been less than candid with the American people.
According to internal emails of the Austin-based private intelligence firm Stratfor, General David Petraeus was drawing attention to his private life much earlier than previously believed. Because it was his private life that resulted in his being forced out as CIA director, alterations in our understanding of the time frame are significant.
Until now, the consensus has been that Petraeus began an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, in the fall of 2011, after he retired from the military and took over the CIA.
Lt. Col. John Nagl, a friend of Petraeus, claims the Petraeus-Broadwell extramarital affair did not begin until after Petraeus became CIA director, which was in September 2011. And retired US Army Col. Steve Boylan, a former Petraeus spokesperson, says the affair did not begin until several months after August 2011, when Petraeus retired from the Army.
But documents—researched by WhoWhatWhy and published for the first time as part of an investigative partnership with WikiLeaks—suggest otherwise. These documents characterize Petraeus as having regular dinners in early 2010 with Abdulwahab al-Hajri, then Yemen’s ambassador to the US, and note that Petraeus brought to at least one of those dinners a woman “not his wife”—whom the Yemenis believed was “his mistress.” It’s possible—although not confirmed—that this woman was Paula Broadwell, Petraeus’s biographer and mistress, who sent allegedly threatening emails that spawned the strange FBI investigation that precipitated the former Army general’s resignation on November 9, 2012.
Stratfor has a longstanding position of not commenting on the emails obtained by WikiLeaks. The company’s boilerplate public response regarding the internal documents in WikiLeaks’ possession is that it “will not be victimized twice by submitting to questioning about them.”
Petraeus’s attorney, Robert Barnett, declined to comment.
According to the Stratfor emails, Petraeus brought a woman believed to be his mistress to at least one dinner at al-Hajri’s house as early as January or February 2010. It is known that by late 2010, after Petraeus took command for the Afghanistan war, Paula Broadwell had already established what has been called “unfettered” and “unprecedented” access to Petraeus, including lodging on his Kabul base.
By bringing to such a gathering a younger woman who aroused such suspicion, Petraeus was already exhibiting the kind of recklessness not uncommon to highly ambitious people on the rapid ascent. This was especially true given the stakes involved—and Petraeus’s own formidable enemies within the US government.
If the young woman was Broadwell, her willingness to accompany a top military official to such a closed-door, high-level event should draw additional attention to her thinking and motivations. Broadwell was a military intelligence reservist—and her take on what was discussed at precisely those kinds of dinners would have been of interest to her superiors.
By the date of these 2010 dinners, Broadwell had known Petraeus for four years—and had been working closely with him on his biography since the previous year. She says she first met him in the spring of 2006, when she was a graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and asked if she could write his biography. She began work on the biography in 2009 when he headed CENTCOM, the US Central Command. With the biography as her justification, she followed him to Afghanistan where he led the US forces.
Thus, if Stratfor’s Yemeni diplomat source is correct, and the woman was Broadwell, an attractive military intelligence reserve officer was far more deeply entwined than previously known with a controversial, fast-climbing figure at the center of some of America’s and the world’s hottest disputes—at the risk of compromising him and his future.
Stratfor’s Source: a Yemeni diplomat based in DC
Mohammed al-Basha, press attaché for the Yemen embassy in Washington DC, is one of Stratfor’s informants, referred to by DC-based Stratfor analyst Reva Bhalla as her “Yemeni diplomatic source.”
In an interview with us, al-Basha confirmed that Petraeus dined with Abdulwahab al-Hajri at the former ambassador’s house in DC for “an event or a party” while Petraeus was head of CENTCOM. Petraeus was CENTCOM commander from October 31, 2008 until July 18, 2011— which is within the scope of the Stratfor emails and before the dates Nagl and Boylan give for the start of the affair.
Al-Basha told WhoWhatWhy he had “no idea” whether Paula Broadwell attended a dinner with Petraeus and the Yemeni ambassador. “I have no idea. No, no, I have no idea,” he said. “That’s the first I’ve heard this.” He then denied being Stratfor’s source.
However, there are at least one hundred and twenty emails between the Yemen embassy’s al-Basha and Stratfor’s analyst Bhalla in the WikiLeaks cache; many consist of al-Basha answering her questions. In Email-ID 81508, sent January 15, 2010, Bhalla and al-Basha discuss Yemen’s terms for surrendering American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki; al-Basha tells Bhalla he is “not sure about the terms… I will assume a fair prosecution can be part of the plea”; in Email-ID 1098283, sent the same day, Bhalla forwards his exact words to other Stratfor analysts, telling them they came from her “Yemeni diplomatic source.”
In Email-ID 90306, sent February 5, 2010, Stratfor Watch Officer Michael Wilson tells the firm about a champagne party where he learned that Petraeus brought an intriguing woman to a dinner with al-Hajri. The email states that a Stratfor source, a “Yemeni diplomat based in DC” and handled by Bhalla, provided the information. Unless Stratfor has multiple Yemeni diplomat sources in DC handled by Bhalla, that source is al-Basha. Furthermore, the WikiLeaks cache appears to contain no email contacts with any other Yemeni diplomats.
Having acknowledged the Petraeus/al-Hajri dinner, al-Basha nonetheless requested that the event not be reported. Then, in a follow-up email exchange, he cited an unnamed former colleague’s assertion that “the General never came over with his biographer to any of our events public or private.” That statement is constructed in such a way that it does not actually deny Petraeus’s presence at the dinners with a woman who was not his wife, or even deny that the woman was Broadwell. Technically, it only excludes a scenario in which Petraeus arrived with Broadwell. We were unable to clarify further because repeated requests that al-Basha identify the former colleague went unanswered.
Why Champagne Hangovers Suck
Email-ID 90306 (with the droll subject line “Re: INSIGHT – YEMEN – why champagne hangovers suck”) contains Wilson’s report of “a hectic, late night” meeting occasioned by Abdulaziz bin Fahd, a son of Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, former king of Saudi Arabia, challenging “everyone to a champagne bottle drinking contest.”
Wilson, writing of what he learned that night, says:
“Petraeus has become BFF [slang for best friends forever] with the Yemeni ambassador here. Dinners every other week at the amb’s house. Last time he came with this woman, not his wife. The Yemenis think she was his mistress, but i seriously doubt that he’d be that stupid considering how high profile he is. You can see Petraeus taking a much deeper interest in Yemen these days though. Petraeus (after he drinks a few) says privately there is an Iranian link in Yemen, but it is not yet critical.”
A 2010 US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks reports that on January 2, 2010 — that is, around the time of Petraeus’s dinners with the ambassador — Petraeus met with then-president of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh, who, referring to secret US air strikes in Yemen, promised Petraeus “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.” Broadwell’s biography of Petraeus, All In: The Education of General David Petraeus, briefly mentions Petraeus trips to Yemen, but does not indicate if she went along.
The Turf War
Control over US policy in Yemen was at stake, and General Petraeus was right in the midst of it. The CIA and the Pentagon had competing objectives in Yemen. The CIA was pushing Obama to authorize the agency to deploy its pilotless drones against radical Islamist forces, while the military wanted to train and supply Yemeni special forces to handle the country’s problems. Debate raged over whether US drone operations—which often involve civilian casualties—were not just further alienating the local population and thereby playing into those Islamists’ hands. Both sides were leaking information to the press to try to influence the White House, and Petraeus himself was one of the leakers. (Later, as CIA director, Petraeus would advocate for increased use of drones.)
Email-ID 1204569, sent September 4, 2010, while Petraeus was CENTCOM commander, contains Stratfor analyst Bhalla’s report of a discussion over hookah (“sheesha”) with her “Yemeni diplomat source” and two younger sons of President Saleh.
She mentions “leaks from a couple weeks ago on CIA recommendations to the [Obama] administration to carry out drone strikes in Yemen,” and says: “There’s a huge turf war between CIA and JSOC over this, which is why all these leaks are coming out,” and notes that
CENTCOM leaked their rec for $1.2 billion assistance funding for Yemeni special forces (this was all Petraeus, who has a very good relationship with the Yemenis and goes to the Yemeni ambo’s house pretty regularly for dinner.) The Yemenis are nervous about [General James] Mattis taking over Centcom. They could deal well with Petraeus, whom they consider a ‘diplomat.’ Don’t know yet how to read Mattis.
Powerful competing US (and international) interests and factions have stakes in Yemen that are not transparent to the public nor shared with it. The political landscape in Yemen is complex and shifting (Saleh is no longer in power, and some reforms are underway), but certain realities must be understood. Some of these were noted nearly a year ago on the site Small Wars Journal, put out by ex-Marines with an interest in nuances that often get lost:
Over the last decade the US has viewed Yemen almost exclusively through a counterterrorism lens. This has proven short-sighted and often counter-productive. Some make a compelling case that Ali Abdullah Saleh kept the terrorism threat alive to secure both US funding and ultimately his regime, which was dubbed by Yemen expert Robert Burrowes as nothing short of a “kleptocracy.”
A careful look at the map reveals that Yemen is the hinge between East and West. The Bab-el-Mandeb – which links the Suez Canal to the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden – highlights Yemen’s vital geostrategic location. Most will be familiar with the strategic and economic importance of the area, particularly the Canal, which remains at the heart of world trade and commerce.
[A] restructured, well-led and well-equipped Yemeni Coastguard active in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden could be leveraged in support of Combined Task Force 150 and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) forces to counter piracy and also quell the aspirations of both Al-Shabaab and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Additionally, the US would have a trusted ally acting across the CENTCOM – AFRICOM boundary.
That tracks with public discussions of regional policy. But what is the interest of Stratfor in Yemen, besides generating content for its subscription newsletters? According to its internal emails, in 2010 the private intelligence firm was providing custom analysis on Yemen for its clients National Oilwell Varco (a Houston-based multinational which builds oil rigs), and Hunt Oil (for more on Ray Hunt—a member of President George W. Bush’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board—and his Middle Eastern operations, including in Iraqi Kurdistan, see this.) Email ID 5300460, sent May 23, 2011, shows Stratfor’s work for Hunt Oil included creating a database of incidents of violence, with precise information such as GPS coordinates. This is yet another reminder that where political struggles play out, the pursuit of profit cannot be far afield.
Petraeus, a canny man, surely understood the factors besides pure military strategy that underlie foreign policy calculations. Also, it was during this period that he was being mentioned as a possible opponent to Obama (Listen here to a top Fox News executive repeating speculation to Petraeus that he was being brought into the CIA to derail a possible run against Obama—and how Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes and their Fox News team would get behind him if he chose to run. Petraeus deflected the talk about a presidential run, saying, with a laugh, “My wife would divorce me.”)
Who Gets Credit?
One of the more revealing aspects of the Stratfor memos is their candor about the narrow and self-serving behavior of agencies and departments whose official justifications are too seldom questioned by the media.
In Email-ID 1204569, coming a year before the US raid on Bin Laden’s haven in Abbottabad, Pakistan, Bhalla writes, with brutal cynicism:
There’s been a ton of media spin and leaks later about Anwar al Awlaki being the next bin Laden. OBL is becoming old news now. CIA and JSOC want a new target to claim success, so there’s a concerted campaign going on right now to play up al Awlaki as the #1 terrorist. Al Awlaki is much easier to target anyway and they have leads on him, so every agency wants to be the one to say they got him. [Emphasis added.]
The month before this September 4, 2010 email, the Obama Administration had placed Anwar al-Awlaki on a “kill or capture” list. A little over a year later, on September 30 2011, a US drone strike killed al-Awlaki in Yemen without his having been charged, given any due process or trial, and without any of the evidence against him being made public—an unprecedented attack on a US citizen.
That Stratfor analysts report a “turf war” between the CIA and JSOC also foreshadows what many see as the biggest fallout from installing a military general as head of what had been regarded as a civilian agency — the further militarization of the CIA’s mission. The fact that the general had a mistress in tow (or—if one assumes that the woman mentioned in Stratfor’s intelligence about that dinner in Yemen wasn’t Paula Broadwell—a series of mistresses) can only add to the disquiet.
It may be that Petraeus shared foreign policy secrets with Broadwell, possibly granting her unauthorized access to classified information. A speech Broadwell gave at the University of Denver near or within the time frame of the FBI investigation of her suggests she may have had inside information about the controversial response to the attacks on the US consulate and the CIA annex in Benghazi.
It is unfortunate how little interest the media has shown in Broadwell’s work as a military intelligence officer. She directed the Counterterrorism Studies Center at Tufts, which stresses advance planning and soft power over military efforts: “We’re playing chess, they’re playing poker.” Clearly, she was not just an eager young scribe falling in love with a brave commander.
Ostensibly, Petraeus was toppled for his involvement in a secret extramarital affair— which became public knowledge with the revelation of Broadwell’s reportedly threatening behavior toward socialite Jill Kelley, whom Broadwell allegedly perceived as a romantic rival.
By agreeing to Broadwell’s original request that he admit her into his life as his biographer, the ambitious general may have unwittingly allowed himself to be set up. If he did invite her along to private dinners where confidential international strategy was discussed, she presumably was quite glad to go, and may even have suggested it. Their affair thus became a sub rosa time-bomb, the fuse of which was in her control.
General David Petraeus’s headlong fall from grace cannot be dismissed as the denouement of yet another peccadillo in an unforgiving moral climate. The plot is thicker than that—perhaps as thick as the often-unnamed heart of the story: oil.