The fall of Gen. David Petraeus as director of the CIA has been portrayed as a story about sex, politics, military culture, and national security. But when all of the details become known, and we are learning more by the hour, this will be a story about the awesome power of e-mail.
In fact, our guess is that the Petraeus story will come to be known as the first great e-mail scandal of our time. Many more are sure to follow.
We've known from the outset that e-mail played a central role in Petraeus' decision to step down following revelations about an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. But let's consider just a couple of key angles we've learned about in the past 24 hours or so:
* Marine Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, became ensnared in the scandal when it was revealed that he had exchanged flirtatious e-mails with Jill Kelley, the Tampa woman who complained to the FBI about harassing e-mails she had received from Broadwell.
* Petraeus and Broadwell used a common tactic in an effort to disguise their electronic communications. Obviously, it did not work too well.
How powerful is the allure of e-mail? A senior defense official described some of the communications between Allen and Kelley as sexually explicit and likened them to "phone sex over e-mail." But here is perhaps the most stunning revelation about the scandal so far:
The investigation focuses on emails between Allen and Jill Kelley, a close friend of the Petraeus family. Kelley was the woman who originally notified the FBI when she received threatening emails from Petraeus' mistress Paula Broadwell -- and that investigation later uncovered the affair.
Sources said officials are reviewing 20,000 to 30,000 pages of documents -- mostly emails -- between 2010 and 2012. One official would only say "there is the distinct possibility" this case is connected to the Petraeus investigation.
Investigators are reviewing 20,000 to 30,000 pages of e-mails between Allen and Kelley? Good Lord, no wonder we have been unable to fully draw down the war in Afghanistan. The top commander has been spending 90 percent of his time "sexting" a married mother of three in Tampa--an exceptionally hot mother of three, we might add. We probably can assume the general was sexting on government time, with taxpayer-funded resources.
As for Petraeus and Broadwell, they obviously tried to cover their tracks. Reports USA Today:
The Associated Press, citing a law enforcement source who declined to be identified, reported that Petraeus and Broadwell apparently used a "dropbox" to conceal their e-mail traffic.
Rather than transmitting e-mails to the other's inbox, they composed at least some messages and left them in a draft folder or in an electronic "drop box," the AP reported. Then the other person could log onto the same account and read the draft e-mails, avoiding the creation of an e-mail trail that might be easier to trace.
That technique, according to published reports, commonly is used by terrorists. And yet, the head of our CIA was using it. How's that for irony?
It's too early to say what's next in the Petraeus affair. But we can safely predict that forced resignations and failed marriages are in the offing. To be sure, e-mail will continue to play a front-and-center role.