TAMPA — Desperate to restore her reputation and, she said, protect others from similar ordeals, Jill Kelley is emerging as an unlikely apostle for privacy.
The 38-year-old South Tampa socialite is suing three federal agencies and a spate of current and former Pentagon and FBI officials, including former CIA director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
She asserts that they violated her privacy, defamed her and improperly gained access to her email, all in a way that hurt her reputation and livelihood.
Since November 2012, when her name was leaked in connection with a scandal that brought down a friend of hers —David A. Petraeus, who had been the leader of Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base before becoming CIA director — Kelley says she has yet to return to her children's schools and avoids going to the grocery store.
Instead, she has aligned herself with some of the nation's most renowned privacy lawyers and has recently given interviews and penned opinion pieces for major news outlets, decrying what she says is a leak that forced her into retreat at her Bayshore Boulevard mansion.
Just over a year ago, Kelley was the social spindle of the military base: a woman known for lavish parties and connections with the top leaders of Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East.
Commanders including Petraeus and Gen. John Allen and their wives were regulars at her home, where they dined under a huge oil painting of Kelley and her husband, Scott T. Kelley, a cancer surgeon.
"People don't understand what I went through," Kelley said in a recent interview with the New York Times. "I am still suffering the consequences from the bad acts and false and untrue headlines. They created a sideshow at my expense."
In a lawsuit that is half legal document and half news release, Kelley seeks damages and a formal apology from the government for revealing her identity after she reported to the FBI what she assumed was a crime: threatening emails sent by a woman with whom Petraeus, then director of the CIA, was having an affair. The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, is also an attempt by Kelley to tell her side of a story she says was distorted, leaving her family as collateral damage.
A spokesman for the FBI, Michael P. Kortan, declined to comment on specifics of the case, citing the continuing litigation. But the government has asked the court to toss the suit.
The Justice Department said that Kelley failed to present any facts suggesting that the FBI and the Pentagon flagrantly disregarded her privacy rights. "A bare allegation" that information was retrieved from government files is insufficient, the Justice Department said in its response.
In years past, Kelley has repeatedly sought publicity for her social doings and has invited the media to several charity events. Most recently, she and her husband helped feed the homeless over Thanksgiving.
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Several privacy experts told the New York Times that while Kelley was an unlikely advocate for the right to live free from the public's glare, her claims of government overreach would resonate, particularly as the nation debates the proper balance of personal privacy and national security.
"This case shows that privacy is really important and that the legal rules we have are not tailored for modern technology," said Neil M. Richards, a privacy law expert at Washington University in St. Louis. "I think it shows also how so many questions that we deal with on an everyday basis, from government to criminal investigations, all deal with the issue of privacy."
Thirteen months ago, the government revealed that the Kelleys, who are co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit, had received a series of menacing emails from Paula Broadwell, who was having an affair with Petraeus. FBI investigators examined all of Kelley's emails as a routine step and in the process discovered what Pentagon officials said was potentially "inappropriate communication" with Allen, then the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
The emails between Allen and Kelley numbered in the hundreds. Allen has since retired from the military, although an inquiry by the Pentagon inspector general cleared him of wrongdoing.
Still, Kelley was banned from the Tampa Air Force base and stripped of her honorary title as consul to South Korea.
"Just because you're stalked by a mistress doesn't mean you are one," Kelley told the New York Times. "It's not contagious."
Kelley and her attorneys said the lawsuit touched on an array of issues: what the government can access, how it disseminates information about private citizens, whether it protects people who report crimes, what constitutes leaking and the laws governing public records.
"Here, the government did not adhere to its own standards for avoiding electronic intrusion into innocent citizens' lives," said Alan Charles Raul, an attorney for the Kelleys. "Instead, they turned around and blamed the victim."
The New York Times contributed to this report.