WASHINGTON — The sex scandal that felled CIA director David Petraeus widened Tuesday to ensnare the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John R. Allen.
The improbable story unfolds at a critical time in the Afghan war effort and just as President Barack Obama was hoping for a smooth transition in his national security team.
Obama put a hold on Allen's nomination to become the next commander of U.S. European Command as well as the NATO supreme allied commander in Europe after investigators uncovered 20,000-plus pages of documents and emails that involved Allen and Jill Kelley of Tampa. Some of the material was characterized as "flirtatious."
Allen, 58, who is married, insisted he had done nothing wrong and worked to save his career.
Known as a close friend of Petraeus, Kelley triggered the FBI investigation that led to Petraeus' downfall as CIA director when she complained about getting anonymous, harassing emails. They turned out to have been written by Petraeus' mistress, Paula Broadwell, who apparently was jealous of the attention the general paid to Kelley. Petraeus acknowledged the affair with Broadwell, his biographer, and resigned Friday.
In the course of looking into that situation, federal investigators came across what a Pentagon official called "inappropriate communications" between Allen and Kelley, a social liaison to MacDill Air Force Base.
One senior U.S. official told the Associated Press the emails between Allen and Kelley were not sexually explicit or seductive but included pet names such as "sweetheart" or "dear." The official said that while much of the communication — including some from Allen to Kelley — is relatively innocuous, some could be construed as unprofessional and would cause a reasonable person to take notice.
The investigation also revealed that Broadwell had sent a handful of emails to Allen — using the handle "kelleypatrol" — including one in which she described Kelley as a "seductress" and warned him to stay away from her, a law enforcement official told the Washington Post.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said that President Barack Obama maintains confidence in Allen, and that the four-star Marine Corps general will continue to lead the war in Afghanistan even as he faces the inspector general's inquiry.
"I can tell you that the president thinks very highly of Gen. Allen and his service to his country, as well as the job he has done in Afghanistan," Carney said, adding that Obama "has faith in General Allen, believes he's doing and has done an excellent job."
Allen, who commands 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, was not suspended from his military position. The White House will soon be deciding how many troops will remain in Afghanistan — and for what purposes — after the U.S.-led combat operation ends in 2014. Allen has provided his recommendations to the White House and is key to those discussions.
Although Allen will remain the commander in Afghanistan, Panetta said that he had asked Obama to delay the general's nomination to be the commander of U.S. forces in Europe and the supreme allied commander of NATO.
In the Petraeus case, the FBI is making a new push to determine how Broadwell obtained classified files. Senior law enforcement officials said that a late-night seizure on Monday of boxes of material from her home in North Carolina marks a renewed focus by investigators on sensitive material found in her possession.
"The issue of national security is still on the table," one U.S. law enforcement official told the Washington Post. Both Petraeus and Broadwell have denied that he was the source of any classified information.
The unfolding story caused a commotion on Capitol Hill as lawmakers complained that they should have been told about the Petraeus investigation earlier.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, called the latest revelations about Allen "a Greek tragedy."
Key lawmakers also signaled their intent to scrutinize the Justice Department's handling of an inquiry that focused initially on a potential conflict between two private people but quickly morphed into an exhaustive examination of the email of two top national security officers.
"My immediate gut is like this is the National Enquirer," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said in an interview on CNN. "I mean, every day there is something new."
Feinstein added that she has "many questions about the nature of the FBI investigation, how it was instituted, and we'll be asking those."
The developments have also complicated the administration's attempt to contain the fallout from the attacks on U.S. diplomatic outpost in Libya in September that killed four Americans.
Feinstein and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said that Petraeus is still likely to be called to testify on the CIA's involvement in the incident.
"I think it is absolutely imperative that Gen. Petraeus come and testify," Collins said. "He was CIA director at the time of the attack. He visited Libya after the attack. He has a great deal of information that we need in order to understand what went wrong."
Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.