WASHINGTON - David Petraeus's downfall took another victim Tuesday as the current U.S. commander in Afghanistan seemingly saw his hopes to become head of NATO go up in smoke amid allegations he exchanged thousands of "potentially inappropriate" emails with a socialite already embroiled in the sex scandal.
U.S. President Barack Obama put the brakes to Marine Gen. John Allen's NATO nomination on Tuesday as the Petraeus scandal tripped up yet another respected military official.
"At the request of the secretary of defence, the president has put on hold his nomination of Gen. Allen ... pending the investigation of Gen. Allen's conduct," Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council, said in a statement Tuesday.
Jill Kelley, a volunteer social liaison officer to an air force base in Tampa, set the FBI investigation into Petraeus in motion last spring when she complained to a friendly agent in Florida about menacing, anonymous email showing up in her inbox.
That agent, incidentally, was removed from the case when he reportedly began sending shirtless photos of himself to Kelley.
The source of the nasty emails to Kelley turned out to be Paula Broadwell, Petraeus's extra-marital girlfriend at the time. The FBI then learned of an affair between Petraeus, the retired four-star general, and Broadwell, his biographer and a North Carolina mother of two.
Petraeus resigned from the CIA on Friday, a day after informing Obama about the affair.
But investigators also reportedly learned of another puzzling association — Allen's and Kelly's. In two years, from 2010 to 2012, the pair apparently exchanged as many as 30,000 emails.
"That's a heck of a lot of time behind the computer sending notes to a party planner," retired general James "Spider" Marks said on CNN.
"From a senior officer who has, obviously, a bunch of things on his plate. He's burning a lot of daylight spending time with a party planner over email. So that's just bizarre, in my mind."
The revelations have trained the spotlight now not just on Broadwell, but on Kelley, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants in Philadelphia who's hired a high-priced D.C. lawyer to represent her.
The 37-year-old Kelley is married to a Tampa doctor and has three young children. She insists she and her husband are simply close friends of David and Holly Petraeus.
A blog written by Petraeus's adult daughter suggests the couples and their children have spent Christmas and Thanksgiving together in recent years. An online scrapbook about one of Kelley's young daughters features a photo of the girl sitting on Petraeus's lap.
Broadwell, however, apparently saw something more in their relationship. According to some reports, her emails to Kelley asked if her husband was aware of her behaviour, and alleged she'd witnessed her suspected romantic rival stroking Petraeus's leg beneath a table at a social event.
Adultery can be a crime under military law, depending on the circumstances.
The sordid allegations mark the stunningly seamy end to the career of one of the most storied military commanders in recent American history. They also threaten the future of yet another four-star general.
The married Allen succeeded Petraeus as the top allied commander in Afghanistan in July 2011. He was also Petraeus's deputy from 2008 until 2010, when both men were in charge of the military's Tampa-based Central Command.
The Allen allegations are relatively fresh. The FBI first notified the Pentagon of Allen's communications with Kelley on Sunday night, a senior defence department official told the Washington Post.
In response, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta referred the investigation on Monday to the department's inspector general.
Another senior official denied an affair between Allen and Kelley, although the source acknowledged the pair exchanged "a few hundred emails over a couple of years" that were largely routine. In an interview with the Washington Post, the official disputed they numbered into the thousands.
"He's never been alone with her," the official told the Post. "Did he have an affair? No."
The senior official said Allen, too, received at least one anonymous email about Kelley from Broadwell. Allen discussed the email with Kelley, who was already receiving harassing messages at the time.
The FBI investigation, set into motion by Kelley, reportedly turned attention onto her email as well — something she might not have banked on when calling a friend in the agency to complain about the menacing anonymous messages.
That friend, later removed from the case, is now under internal investigation at the FBI. He allegedly tipped off a Republican congressman about the investigation into Petraeus because he suspected it had stalled in order to protect Obama as a presidential election loomed.
His personal friendship with Kelley has prompted questions about why an investigation was launched into the anonymous emails to begin with. According to some reports, the messages were more insulting than threatening.
Allen will, for now, remain commander in Afghanistan. He was expected to easily get through confirmation hearings in the Senate on his nomination to be the commander of American forces in Europe and the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO.