Jill Kelley was not the first to see the anonymous email that would rupture her comfortable life as a wealthy Tampa socialite who forged friendships with two top American generals.
She learned of the mysterious message from her husband, Scott, who opened the note on his iPhone, under the Yahoo account they share, as he was about to board a plane.
Kelley says she was “terrified” late last summer when he told her about the email. In that note and the barrage that followed, “there was blackmail, extortion, threats,” Kelley told me in her first interview since the David Petraeus scandal erupted, breaking a silence of nearly three months.
These emails, as Kelley would later learn along with the rest of the world, were from Paula Broadwell, whose affair with Petraeus triggered his resignation as CIA director. But the writer was so ambiguous, says Kelley, that “I didn’t even know it was a female.”
Contradicting virtually every published account of the saga, Kelley indicates that the anonymous emails did not warn her to stay away from Petraeus, as is commonly assumed. And yet the press depicted the two of them as “romantic rivals. Think how bizarre that is,” Kelley says.
One person close to Kelley says the tone of the notes grew increasingly severe and, without being explicit, threatening. She declined to show me the emails, which another source described as fewer than 10 in number.
Did Kelley come to suspect that Broadwell was behind the dark messages?
“I never met Paula in my life,” Kelley says. At the time, Kelley says, she didn’t even know Broadwell had just published a glowing biography of Petraeus.
It seems evident that Broadwell had grown jealous about what she perceived as Kelley’s close relationship with Petraeus; at one awards ceremony, he kissed her on the cheek. But Kelley will not speculate about Broadwell’s motivation.
Kelley’s complaint to the FBI set in motion a chain of events that culminated days after the November election with Petraeus, the architect of U.S. war strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan, acknowledging the affair with Broadwell and leaving the Obama administration.
'As the scandal heightened, the media spun the affair as a 'romantic rivalry' between Kelley and Broadwell.'
Kelley, 37, would find herself the subject of fevered speculation that she was carrying on with Gen. John Allen, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, which she flatly denies. Allen also has denied wrongdoing.
Kelley bristles at those eye-catching media reports that she and Allen exchanged as many as 30,000 emails, calling the figure “outrageous.” While Kelley will not provide an estimate, she says she believes the emails totaled in the hundreds.
That figure was confirmed Tuesday when the Pentagon inspector general cleared Allen of any wrongdoing in connection with the e-mails. As reported by The Washington Post, the office told Allen in a letter that he had not violated regulations against conduct unbecoming an officer. The IG did not characterize the tone of the e-mails.
What has been lost in the lurid and sometimes mocking coverage is the toll the scandal has taken on Kelley, her husband, and their three young children.
The weekend after the story broke, Kelley was celebrating her daughter’s seventh birthday when she gazed out the window at the mess her life had become.
“It was devastating,” Kelley told me. “To have your privacy invaded is truly—there are no words to describe it. Instead of enjoying a family birthday party, I had paparazzi storming my front lawn, pushing down the door. There are no words to describe the panic and fear at that moment.”
But Kelley has many words to describe what happened to her, and they come pouring out in a torrent during a two-hour interview in Washington, her hands tightly clasped, her voice by turns angry and exasperated and confused by the enormity of her ordeal. Her dark eyes flashed when she was upset, and she paused occasionally to smooth her mane of shoulder-length black hair.
Federal prosecutors declined last month to file charges against Broadwell over the emails. What has not been reported is that the case was closed after Kelley was asked whether she wanted to press charges and declined. The final decision is always up to prosecutors, but Kelley would have been the chief witness.
Kelley says she was concerned about the impact of a potential criminal case on her friends and their families. “I just wanted to let them move on with their lives and not have to relive it,” she says.
Dee Dee Myers, Broadwell’s spokeswoman, says “the Justice Department thoroughly looked at this and declined to prosecute.” That decision, says Myers, “makes a pretty bold statement about the content of the emails…People can make their own judgments based on that.”
Concerned about journalists near her house last November, Jill Kelley called the police and invoked her ‘diplomatic’ status.
It is obvious from Kelley’s tone and her body language that she is furious with Broadwell. While she will not discuss the details of the Broadwell emails, Kelley doesn’t miss a beat in declaring: “I knew I was being stalked.” In alerting an acquaintance at the FBI, she says, “I did what anybody else would have done when they were feeling threatened, to go seek protection from somebody I could trust.” (The story soared on the titillation index with reports that the agent, Fred Humphries, had sent Kelley a shirtless photo. But she says it was a joke—Humphries is posing with two dummies—and was sent to many people, including his wife.)
Kelley adamantly refuses to characterize her feelings toward Broadwell, an academic and former Army officer. But she does not discourage a comparison of her plight to that of Nancy Kerrigan, the figure skater who had to withdraw from a national championship in 1994 after being clubbed in the knee with a tire iron. That, of course, would put Broadwell in the role of Tonya Harding, who helped cover up the attack.
Part of Kelley’s ire is directed at the media for reporting what she says are lies and half-truths about her. She made it clear in her emotional interview that she fervently wants to erase her public image as, to use the phrase that has dogged her, the Other Other Woman.
“As much as I appreciate that they want to be the first one to come out with a headline, regardless of whether they did any fact-checking, they have to consider the impact they have on our life and our children’s lives,” she says. “Just because it’s repeated doesn’t make it true. It was living a nightmare.”
People she never met, including a hairdresser who claimed her as a customer, were quoted as friends of hers, Kelley says.
She sounds naïve at times about the way the modern media machine functions, baffled as to why she is deemed newsworthy at all. She is frustrated that even her Wikipedia page has had basic errors of fact, such as her date of birth.
But while some news organizations rushed to paint an unflattering portrait of Kelley, her long silence—on the advice of a previous publicist—left journalists with little access to firsthand information. Her new spokesman, Gene Grabowski of the Washington firm Levick, has a different approach.
Kelley has a natural ease and a certain exotic flair. She was born in Lebanon, which her parents fled when she and her twin sister, Natalie Khawam, were 1-year olds.
In recent years, Kelley has become a kind of social ambassador in the military community in Tampa, where the U.S. Central Command is based. She threw lavish parties and hobnobbed with top officials at nearby MacDill Air Force Base.
When Petraeus moved to Tampa to head CentCom in 2010, Kelley threw a dinner for him at her home, including such guests as Charlie Crist, then Florida’s governor. She and Petraeus became “family friends,” says Kelley, and she developed a friendly relationship with Petraeus’s wife, Holly.
Kelley says she met John Allen when she and Petraeus hosted a surprise birthday party for Holly, and Allen, who served as Petraeus’s deputy, was on the invite list.
Asked to describe her relationship with Allen, Kelley says: “We’re friends, good friends. His wife and me are good friends. Our children are friends.”
That friendship continued by email when Allen was sent to Kabul. The general’s promotion to be commander of NATO forces is on hold while investigators examine the email traffic between him and Kelley.
These emails have been described by some unnamed government officials as flirtatious and potentially inappropriate. But Kelley told me they were so innocent that they were sent and received under an account she shares with her husband because she lacks her own email address. She also says Allen’s wife was often copied on the notes.
“It was pretty straightforward,” Kelley says.
'Howard Kurtz talks to CNN's Soledad O'Brien about his exclusive Jill Kelley interview.'
She does not find it unusual that both Allen and Petraeus wrote letters to the court on behalf of her sister Natalie in a case in which her twin is trying to regain custody of a child from her estranged husband. Natalie moved in with her family after the split, says Kelley, and developed her own friendship with the generals.
The spotlight also has fallen on Kelley’s financial difficulties. She says that when the family faced litigation over credit-card debts, it stemmed from a decision to let an investment property go into foreclosure in a down market after they evicted the tenant.
The press “made it look like I’m throwing parties yet I’m broke, made it look like we’re deadbeats,” Kelley says. “It’s offensive.”
She is similarly perturbed over reports that roughly half of the $160,000 raised for her cancer research charity went to meals, entertaining, and other expenses. Kelley says no outside money was raised and that she and her husband were the sole donors.
Another embarrassment surfaced when New York businessman Adam Victor was quoted as saying that Kelley had asked for an $80 million commission if she used her influence to help him obtain a massive energy contract with South Korea. She “tried to sell herself as something she was not,” Victor told CNN. Kelley, who met Victor at last summer’s Republican National Convention in Tampa, held the honorary title of “special consul” to the South Korean foreign ministry.
Kelley says Victor approached her, that they had two meetings, and that she discontinued the talks. A 2 percent fee was discussed but nothing more specific, as Kelley recalls it.
She invoked her title in calls to 911 when mobs of reporters and photographers staked out her home. “I am an honorary consul general, so I have inviolability,” Kelley told a 911 dispatcher in one call. “They should not be able to cross my property. I don’t know if you want to get diplomatic protection involved as well?”
South Korea stripped Kelley of the honorary title and its $2,500 stipend after the Victor episode became public.
As with many ordinary people pushed into the media vortex, Kelley is a bit disoriented as she tries to reclaim her old life. She even seems to have lost control of her photographic image, as most stories and television segments use shots of her in a form-fitting cocktail dress walking to her car. Kelley never released any family pictures, until now.
She is worried about the impact of the harsh coverage on her husband: “It’s obviously been very difficult for him. He’s an honorable guy.” (I had briefly met Scott Kelley, a cancer surgeon with a reserved manner, but he did not want to join the interview.)
What does she want people to know about Jill Kelley? “I’m a dedicated mother, a loving wife. We have a very happy, close family. I support the troops. I take pride in feeding the homeless in our community.” She pauses.
“This whole situation is just very sad.”
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