To hear the Pentagon tell it, there’s no there there to the scandal that derailed the promotion of the commander of the Afghanistan war. There’s no security risk; there’s no sexual affair; and there may not have been more than a couple mack-tacular emails. Over the course of a short, strange, impromptu Pentagon briefing, an official implicitly distanced the imbroglio over Marine Gen. John Allen from the related scandal, involving some of the same people, that just forced the resignation of CIA Director David Petraeus.
The Defense Department official, who would not speak for attribution on Tuesday, said that Allen “denied that he’s had an extra-marital affair” with Tampa socialite Jill Kelley. Allen communicated his denial to Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney said President Obama has “faith” in Allen.
Growing out of an FBI inquiry, the Defense Department’s inspector general is now investigating Allen’s e-mail traffic with Kelley for any indication of a relationship between the two that “would bring discredit upon the service,” which is a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The Defense official characterized the e-mails — which are included in hundreds of electronic communications involving the two — as “flirtatious.” The communications chain started in 2010, when Allen was Petraeus’ deputy at the Tampa-based U.S. Central Command, where he apparently met the married Kelley, and continued through 2012, when Allen was in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon investigation isn’t looking at any potential breaches of classified information between Allen and Kelley, a difference between the subject of this inquiry and the FBI investigation that ultimately led Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to insist that Petraeus retire. But the Defense Department official twice punted on questions about whether Allen and Petraeus are the only two generals that came under FBI scrutiny.
The communications between Allen and Kelley “are not security-related. They’re not information about acquisitions or contracting, they’re not hate or threatening,” the Defense Department official said. But the official said he was “not prepared” to rule out sexual innuendo: “‘Flirtatious’ can cover everything from something fairly innocuous all the way over to sexting or something along those lines. It’s a broad term, and these [investigators] have to read through all these emails to make a determination.”
Kelley is not a U.S. government employee, the Defense Department official said — although Washington Post reporter Ernesto Londono tweeted a photo of her license plate, which bears the stamp “Honorary Consul.” Military officials insisted on Tuesday that Kelley was one of many socialites who interacted with the U.S. Central Command as part of routine community outreach. Kelley’s lawyer, Abbe Lowell, didn’t return a request for comment, but the media has already filled up with accounts of her “social galas [that] seemed to spare no expenses” and her family’s numerous lawsuits over unpaid credit card debt and court-ordered foreclosures.
Since word broke early Tuesday morning that Allen was implicated in the FBI inquiry that brought down Petraeus, people close to Allen have insisted there’s less to the story than meets the eye. “The Gen. Allen that I worked for is a man who is very serious about the public trust,” Army Lt. Col. Ray Kimball, a former Allen staffer, told Danger Room. “I never heard the name Jill Kelley until this weekend.”
The Washington Post, however, quotes an unnamed military official as saying that that Allen and Kelley exchanged “a few hundred emails over a couple of years,” mostly about “routine stuff.”
Or maybe not so routine. The New York Post reports that Allen and Petraeus recently wrote to a Florida judge to help Kelley’s sister Natalie Khawam win a child custody battle. Allen told the judge that he came to know the Kelley family “at command social functions” in Tampa, and it convinced him of Khawam’s fitness to raise her son: “In light of Natalie’s maturity, integrity and steadfast commitment to raising her child, I humbly request your reconsideration of the existing mandated custody settlement.”
Kelley was the recipient of hostile emails from Petraeus mistress Paula Broadwell; her decision to notify a friend in the FBI about the harassment set into motion the chain of events that brought down Petraeus and has left Allen’s nomination to U.S. European Command in limbo. But while the officers were close in Tampa, those who know them describe them very differently. Petraeus was well-known in the military as someone who enjoyed having his ego stroked. Allen had an entirely different reputation: for low-profile competence. It’s one of the reasons why this scandal (even if it’s a small one) such a head-scratcher.
“The proclivity of most military officers is to work until you drop. The old joke about military culture is if my ship sinks and I wind up alone on a desert island, by the second week, I’ll be working nights,” says a former senior military officer. That’s especially true for a top war zone commander, putting in 16 to 18-hour days.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta hasn’t removed Allen from command in Afghanistan. Panetta and the Senate Armed Services Committee have agreed to forestall a scheduled Thursday hearing on Allen’s nomination to lead U.S. forces in Europe. It is unclear whether Adm. James Stavridis, the outgoing commander, will remain in his role until an anticipated handover after March 2013, according to the committee. But the Defense official said to draw no conclusions about the severity of Allen’s alleged misdeeds from the general’s continued wartime command. Allen is scheduled to return to Kabul on Saturday.
In an unrelated scandal, a third senior general has been laid low. Army Gen. William Ward, the first commander of U.S. forces in Africa, will retire at a lieutenant general’s rank and will have to repay the Army $82,000, the Associated Press reported. The Pentagon inspector general found that Ward used official travel for personal trips; accepted small gifts from Pentagon contractors; and used his military aides to perform household tasks for his wife, like purchasing dark chocolate Snickers bars. For nearly a year and a half, the Army has given Ward a nebulous job in its vice chief of staff’s office, but as a major general, meaning Ward will be able to retire with the loss of only one of his stars.
It’s unclear whether the Pentagon knows all there is to know about Allen. Pointing to the large volume of material the inspector general must review, the Defense Department official declined to draw definitive conclusions in the general’s case.
If there’s a possible silver lining to this rather weird and icky cloud, it’s that these scandals might provoke a reevaluation of how the military treats its highest-ranking general officers. Today, many three and four stars are pampered like British royals – and we all know the kind of trouble those Windsors get themselves into.
“I worry about a creeping entitlement culture,” a former senior military officer tells Danger Room. “They’re so far removed from the daily realities – everything’s taken care of. There’s too many bells and whistles, too many perks,” says the former officer. “They’re ferried from place to place in black SUVs. Some of them have their own airplanes. Aides make their dinner reservations, get their clothes cleaned even cook their dinners. Many guys running big corporations aren’t living this large. And it all seems perfectly normal to them.”
Peeling away the entourages might bring some generals back down to the plane of mere mortals. And that, in turn, might save the Pentagon from other embarrassing press conference like the one staged on Tuesday.