November 19, 2012

The Petraeus affair: FBI probe was exception to rule

But most cyberstalking cases don't involve the CIA director or military leader in Afghanistan.

Richard Lardner / The Associated Press

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Paula Broadwell, Jill Kelley
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Former CIA Director David Petraeus’ biographer and paramour Paula Broadwell, left, and Florida socialite Jill Kelley were caught up in the FBI investigation that ultimately led to Petraeus stepping down. The FBI commonly declines to pursue cyberstalking cases.

T. Ortega Gaines/Charlotte Observer (left); 2012 File Photo/The Associated Press

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In early June, Kelley herself received the first of as many as five emails sent from different anonymous accounts alleging that she was up to no good. One of messages cited Petraeus by name and mentioned an upcoming social visit they had planned in Washington. The mysterious emails were sent to Kelley's personal account and to a separate account she jointly monitored with her husband.

Kelley contacted an FBI agent in Tampa she had met years earlier. The bureau believed the emails were serious because they suggested the mysterious sender knew about upcoming meetings of the CIA director and a Marine Corps general.

Agents examined the digital fingerprints that emails leave behind and eventually determined Broadwell had sent the messages from an account set up with a fictitious name. As the agents looked further, they came across a private Gmail account that used an alias name. It turned out to be Petraeus'. The contents of several of the exchanges between Petraeus and Broadwell indicated they were having an affair. A search of Broadwell's computers also found classified documents.

Most cyberstalking allegations are handled by state and local law enforcement organizations, said Michelle Garcia, director of the Stalking Resource Center at the National Center for Victims of Crime. "Given the variety of crimes that the FBI is responsible for addressing, I think often some of the stalking ones don't elevate to the top of the priority list," she said.

State police agencies have little contact with the FBI in responding to cyberstalking cases, Garcia said. "In our work with local law enforcement, very rarely do they talk about working with federal authorities on these cases."

The Petraeus case has drawn attention to how easy it is for the government to examine emails and computer files if they believe a law was broken. The FBI and other investigating agencies armed with subpoenas and warrants routinely gain access to email accounts offered by Google, Yahoo and other Internet providers.

Civil liberties groups have criticized the FBI for pursuing the investigation of the emails to Kelley because there is no indication the messages contained any threatening language or classified information. The episode underscores the need to strengthen the legal protections for electronic communications, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Federal agencies can obtain a substantial amount of information about the online activities of an individual without getting a warrant from a judge. A subpoena approved by a federal prosecutor is usually sufficient to get access to stored emails and login data.

"These are invasive powers that need to have a check against overuse and abuse," said Chris Soghoian, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU. "And that check should be a judge."

The Senate Judiciary Committee will meet later this month to consider legislation that would do just that. The bill would require a warrant for all Internet communications. Law enforcement officials have resisted the change. But all the attention from the Petraeus case could give proponents of the legislation the momentum they need to push the bill through.

"If we learn nothing else from the Petraeus scandal, it should be that our private digital lives can become all too public when over-eager federal agents aren't held to rigorous legal standards," staff attorneys for the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote in a blog post.


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