Pentagon and FBI target whistleblower over Petraeus leak

Jill Kelley still glances around for cameras before she leaves her large, six-columned house on Hillsborough Bay, and she rarely goes to the grocery store. Since November 2012, when the government released her name in connection with a scandal that brought down the head of the Central Intelligence Agency, Ms. Kelley has yet to return to her children’s schools, she said, and could not even summon the courage to go to their holiday plays.  Ms. Kelley is, with the help of some of the nation’s most renowned and expensive privacy lawyers, suing three federal agencies and a spate of current and former Pentagon and F.B.I. officials. She asserts that they violated her privacy, defamed her and improperly gained access to her email without her consent, all in a way that hurt her reputation and livelihood.

Reclusion remains an uncomfortable cloak for Ms. Kelley, 38, who just over a year ago was the social spindle of MacDill Air Force Base here: a woman known for her lavish parties and connections with the top leaders of United States Central Command, which oversees American military operations in the Middle East. Commanders and their wives were regulars at her dining room table, where Champagne flowed under a huge oil painting of Ms. Kelley and her husband, Scott T. Kelley, a cancer surgeon.

In a lawsuit that is half legal document and half news release, Ms. Kelley seeks damages and a formal apology from the government for revealing her identity after she reported what she assumed was a crime: threatening emails sent by a woman with whom Gen. David H. Petraeus, then director of the C.I.A., was having an affair. The suit, filed in United States District Court for the District of Columbia, is also an attempt by Ms. Kelley to tell her side of a story that she says was distorted and dismissed, leaving her family as collateral damage.

A spokesman for the F.B.I., Michael P. Kortan, declined to comment on the specifics of the case, citing the continuing litigation. “We approach all investigations equally and in accordance with guidelines and the law,” he said.

Several privacy experts said that while Ms. 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 General Petraeus. F.B.I. investigators examined all of Ms. Kelley’s emails as a routine step and in the process discovered what Pentagon officials said was potentially “inappropriate communication” with a Gen. John R. Allen, then the top American commander in Afghanistan.

“Just because you’re stalked by a mistress doesn’t mean you are one,” Ms. Kelley said in the interview. “It’s not contagious.”

Her husband said he had never suspected his wife of inappropriate dalliances with General Allen. “I saw the emails,” Dr. Kelley said. “I knew it was complete nonsense.”

When the emails were discovered, a law enforcement official called them “sexually explicit,” Pentagon officials described them as embarrassing, and General Allen’s associates said they were innocuous and contained little beyond language like “you’re a sweetheart.” Ms. Kelley, too, describes them as innocuous, but the government has refused to release them.

Ms. Kelley and her lawyers 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, a lawyer for the Kelleys. “Instead, they turned around and blamed the victim. If privacy rights mean anything, it means the government must be held accountable for protecting people who committed no crime or wrongdoing.”

Privacy lawyers said the outcome of the case would rest in part on whether the agencies involved were subject to exemptions under the Privacy Act of 1974, and on how the court interpreted arcane aspects of laws governing electronic records.

Ms. Kelley’s fortunes differ starkly from those of General Petraeus, who has teaching positions at the University of Southern California, the City University of New York and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and is chairman of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts’s KKR Global Institute. (He resigned from his C.I.A. post after the scandal unfolded.) General Allen is now an adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry on the Middle East peace talks. Ms. Broadwell, who was not charged with a crime, is living with her husband and two children in Charlotte, N.C., teaching, writing and working with groups that help veterans.

Ms. Kelley remains insistent that she did nothing wrong. “I was seeking protection,” she said, “not publicity.”

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