WASHINGTON — The sex scandal that felled former CIA Director David Petraeus widened Tuesday to ensnare the top US commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, in a suddenly public drama involving a Tampa socialite, a jealous rival, a twin sister in a messy custody dispute, and flirty e-mails.
The improbable story — by turns tragic and silly — could have major consequences, unfolding at a critical time in the Afghan war effort and just as President Obama was hoping for a smooth transition in his national security team.
Obama put a hold on the nomination of Afghan war chief Allen to become the next commander of the US European Command as well as the NATO supreme allied commander in Europe after investigators uncovered 20,000-plus pages of documents and e-mails that involved Allen and Tampa socialite Jill Kelley. Some of the material was characterized as ‘‘flirtatious.’’
Allen, 58, insisted he’d done nothing wrong and worked to save his imperiled career.
Kelley, 37, who had worked herself into the center of the military social scene in Florida without having any official role, emerged as a central figure in the still-unfolding story that has embroiled two of the nation’s most influential and respected military leaders.
Known as a close friend of retired General Petraeus, Kelley triggered the FBI investigation that led to his downfall as CIA director when she complained about getting anonymous, harassing e-mails. They turned out to have been written by Petraeus’s former mistress, Paula Broadwell, who apparently was jealous of the attention the general paid to Kelley. Petraeus acknowledged the affair 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, both of them married.
According to one senior US official, the e-mails 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.
That official, as well as others who described the investigation, requested anonymity on grounds that they were not authorized to discuss the situation publicly.
The FBI decided to turn over the Allen information to the military once the bureau recognized it contained no evidence of a federal crime, according to a federal law enforcement official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter on the record and demanded anonymity. Adultery, however, is a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Allen was not suspended from his military position, even though his nomination for promotion is on hold. The White House will soon be deciding how many troops will remain in Afghanistan — and for what purposes — after the US-led combat operation ends in 2014. Allen has provided his recommendations to the White House and is key to those discussions.
Still more subplots in the story emerged Tuesday with news that both Allen and Petraeus wrote letters last year on behalf of Jill Kelley’s twin sister, Natalie Khawam, in a messy custody dispute. In 2011, a judge had denied Khawam custody of her 3-year-old son, saying she ‘‘appears to lack any appreciation or respect for the importance of honesty and integrity in her interactions with her family, employers and others with whom she comes in contact.’’
Allen, in his letter, wrote of Khawam’s ‘‘maturity, integrity and steadfast commitment to raising her child.’’ Petraeus wrote that he’d been host for the Kelley family and Khawam and her son for Christmas dinner, and he described a loving relationship with her son. That also indicated how close the Petraeus and Kelley families had been.
Kelley served as a sort of social ambassador for US Central Command in Tampa, hosting parties for Petraeus when he was commander there from 2008-10.
The friendship with Petraeus began when they arrived in Tampa, and the Kelleys threw a welcome party at their home, a short distance from Central Command headquarters, introducing the new chief and his wife, Holly, to Tampa’s elite, according to staffers who served with Petraeus.
Such friendships among senior military commanders and prominent local community leaders are common at any base, a relationship where the officers invite local people to exclusive military events and functions, and the invitees respond by providing private funding to support troops with everything from ‘‘Welcome Home’’ parades to assistance for injured combat veterans.
Petraeus aides say Jill Kelley took it to another level, winning the title of ‘‘honorary ambassador’’ from the countries involved in the Afghan war for her extensive entertaining at her home on behalf of the command, throwing parties that raised her social status in Tampa through the glow of the four-star general in attendance.
White House spokesman Jay Carney was asked about the revelations involving Allen and said Obama ‘‘wouldn’t call it welcome’’ news.
Obama has hoped to run a methodical transition, with the goal of keeping many Cabinet members and other high-ranking officials in their posts until successors are confirmed. Petraeus’s resignation has disrupted those plans, leaving Obama with an immediate vacancy to fill and raising questions about how much other immediate shake-up the national security team can handle.