WASHINGTON — It was the type of exclusive event that the Harvard Kennedy School prides itself on: a wide-ranging discussion with a top-tier government decision maker.
In this case, it took place on April 27, 2006, in Cambridge, where a select group of faculty and students were invited to meet then three-star General David H. Petraeus, who was just back from Iraq and in the midst of rewriting the Army’s strategy for waging a guerrilla war.
It was also where a 33-year-old graduate student in public administration, Paula Broadwell, approached him for help on a research project she was pursuing on military training.
Petraeus and Broadwell, whose subsequent affair led to his abrupt resignation as head of the CIA last week, had much in common. They were graduates of West Point, and physical fitness addicts. He had just overseen the training of Iraqi security forces, while she had studied it firsthand on a fellowship to Jordan. They were policy wonks — Petraeus as the leading soldier-thinker of his generation and Broadwell with one master’s degree under her belt and in pursuit of additional academic pedigree.
As new details of their relationship emerge, the Kennedy School connection looms large. The school was the place where Petraeus regularly looked to engage in rigorous debate with some of the nation’s leading military and nonmilitary thinkers — and it was the source of some of the institutional support that ultimately led to Broadwell’s bestselling biography of Petraeus published earlier this year, for which she spent considerable time with him in Afghanistan and Washington.
“David has visited several times,” Graham Allison, the director of the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, which organized the dinner after the 2006 Institute of Politics event, said in an e-mail from Dubai yesterday. “As a PhD from Princeton, [he] thinks of himself and is very much part of the analytic community.”
Such caliber of visitors, Allison noted, is not unusual at the Kennedy School: Recent guests have included two chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the head of the super-secret National Security Agency.
But Petraeus was unique, coming to Cambridge on a number of occasions — the last in 2009 — to confer with Kennedy School faculty and students across various disciplines.
“The Kennedy School,” recalled retired Army Colonel Peter Mansoor, one of Petraeus’s aides at the time, “commanded his attention.”
“He would use information he gained from those sources in fashioning the way ahead. He also used the connections that he made there, Paula Broadwell being one of many.”
Mansoor, now a military history professor at Ohio State University, was helping Petraeus, who was then the commander of the Army’s Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to rewrite the service’s so-called counterinsurgency manual.
The Harvard Kennedy School played a prominent role in crafting the strategy, which was applied to the wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan, when Petraeus later took command there.
In early 2006, the school’s Carr Center for Human Rights cosponsored a conference Petraeus organized in Fort Leavenworth to kick off the revamping of the military doctrine for counterinsurgency warfare.
“Having a human rights component and being very clear on the human rights concerns was the interest of the Carr Center,” said a university official who was not authorized to speak publicly. “That collaboration was to have a seat at the table.”
Beginning in late 2005, the Carr Center cohosted a conference in Washington where Petraeus laid out his lessons learned as a field commander in Iraq. The center’s director, Sarah Sewell, who knew Petraeus from her stint in the Pentagon in the 1990s, soon became a key adviser, ultimately helping him minimize civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sewell, who later was hired by Petraeus as a consultant to gather on-the-ground data in Afghanistan, said Monday that an added benefit for Petraeus of his visits to Cambridge was that his son was a student at MIT at the time.
At the time the school was also recruiting as fellows former military leaders, including retired Brigadier General Kevin Ryan, a senior fellow at the time and now the Belfer Center’s executive director.
As for Broadwell, she arrived in Cambridge after earning a master’s degree in international security at the University of Denver, where she was awarded a scholarship to study Arabic and Middle Eastern culture in Morocco. Broadwell also studied at the University of Jordan in the spring of 2005, an experience that informed her first op-ed published by the Globe later that year. (Altogether she has published four op-eds in the Globe.)
Then a captain in the Army Reserve, she wrote shortly before her enrollment at Harvard that Iraqi police forces “will never be ready to defend their country” because of the poor training she witnessed at the Jordan International Police Training Center near Amman — training that Petraeus oversaw.
At the Kennedy School, she focused on counterterrorism, working at the Harvard Defense and Security Initiative, even as she served as deputy director of the Jebsen Center for Counter-Terrorism Studies at Tufts University.
Broadwell’s Kennedy School contemporaries contacted by the Globe were tight-lipped or said they did not know her. More than a half-dozen of Broadwell’s classmates at Harvard declined to characterize her work or describe her personally.
In an interview with radio personality Don Imus after her book came out earlier this year, Broadwell described her first meeting with Petraeus.
“I was studying at the time, and a group of students was asked to meet with him,” she recalled. “I went up to him and said I’m working on this research and I’d love to get your feedback or connect with folks in your military organizations to share these ideas and he gave me his card, and we kept in touch.”
After earning her master’s in public administration from the Kennedy School in 2008, she continued her relationship with the university and remains a research affiliate at the school’s Center for Public Leadership, according to university officials.
“Research affiliates typically conduct their own research projects independent of the center, but the affiliation affords them the opportunity to visit on occasion and to share their work with other researchers and faculty,” the Harvard official explained.
Asked about Broadwell’s position, David Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership, said, “It is a relationship we are proud to have.”
Her position is slated to end with the academic school year.
Military officers, public officials, and diplomats of Petraeus’s caliber who visit the Kennedy School in their official capacities have a way of coming back to the school after leaving the government.
For example, Michele Flournoy, the former undersecretary of defense for policy, retired Marine Corps General James Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Robert Zoellick, World Bank president, have all “recently become senior fellows,” said Allison.