WASHINGTON — The way the FBI responded to Jill Kelley's complaint about receiving harassing emails, which ultimately unraveled or scarred the careers of ex-CIA director David Petraeus and Marine Gen. John Allen, is the exception, not the rule.
The FBI commonly declines to pursue cyberstalking cases without compelling evidence of serious or imminent harm to an individual, say advocacy groups and computer crime experts.
But in the sensational episode that uncovered the spy chief's adulterous affair, the FBI's cyberdivision devoted months of tedious investigative work to uncover who had sent insulting and anonymous messages about Kelley, the Tampa socialite who was friendly with Petraeus and Allen — and friends with a veteran FBI counterterrorism agent.
The bureau probably would have ignored Kelley's complaint had it not been for information in the emails that indicated the sender was aware of the travel schedules of Petraeus and Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Instead, the FBI considered this to be an exceptional case, and one so sensitive that FBI director Robert Mueller and Attorney General Eric Holder were kept notified of its progress.
How the FBI's investigation unfolded — especially its decision not to alert the White House, the director of national intelligence or Congress about its discovery of Petraeus' sexual affair until Election Day — is under scrutiny, especially because there is no indication so far that any criminal charges will be filed.
Mueller and his deputy, Sean Joyce, have met privately with lawmakers to defend how the inquiry was handled. Holder said on Thursday that law enforcement officials did not inform the president and Congress about the inquiry because it did not uncover any threat to national security.
The FBI's cybersquads, like the one in Tampa that investigated the Petraeus case, are primarily focused on blocking criminals and terrorists from using the Internet to threaten national security or steal valuable information stored in government and corporate computers.
An Associated Press review of court records found only nine cases over the past two years that identified cyberstalking or cyberharassment as the underlying crime in federal criminal complaints. In one recent case, a Michigan man was charged with cyberstalking after using the Internet and text messages to contact female victims, many of them minors, to obtain pornographic pictures. In another case, the FBI arrested a man for sending emails threatening to kill Los Angeles model Kourtney Reppert and her family.
"They turn people away all the time on the grounds that (cyberstalking) is a civil matter, not a criminal one," said Danielle Citron, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law who studies cyberharassment issues.
But the FBI considered Kelley's complaint significant. And for good reason, said David Laufman, a former federal prosecutor who handled national security cases. "Most cases aren't going to get this level of attention or resources," he said. "But most cases don't involve the incumbent director of the CIA or the head of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan."
The first anonymous emails, which the FBI ultimately traced to Paula Broadwell, an Army reservist and Petraeus' biographer, were sent in May to Allen and several other generals warning them to stay away from Kelley. The emails came from the pseudonym "Kelleypatrol" and included notes on Allen's plans to see Kelley in Washington the following week.
Concerned about how anyone else would know about his personal plans, Allen forwarded the emails to Kelley to see whether she was playing a prank on them. Other generals also forward to Kelley copies of emails they received.
In June, Kelley received the first of as many as five emails sent from anonymous accounts alleging that she was up to no good. One message cited Petraeus by name and mentioned a forthcoming social visit they had planned in Washington.
Kelley contacted an FBI agent in Tampa she had met years earlier. The bureau believed the emails were serious because they suggested the mysterious sender knew about forthcoming meetings of the CIA director and a Marine Corps general.
Agents eventually determined Broadwell had sent the messages. As the agents looked further, they found exchanges between Petraeus and Broadwell indicating they were having an affair. A search of Broadwell's computers also found classified documents.