US President Barack Obama backed the commander of US forces in Afghanistan on Tuesday after the top general was dragged into the sex scandal that brought down CIA director David Petraeus.
General John Allen was placed under investigation after FBI agents probing e-mail threats sent by Petraeus’ mistress stumbled upon a vast trove of messages Allen sent to another married woman at the heart of the scandal.
According to a senior Pentagon official, the married general denies any sexual liaison with 37-year-old Tampa socialite Jill Kelley, but the “sheer volume” of correspondence could amount to “conduct unbecoming an officer”.
Due to face lawmakers this week for a hearing to confirm his promotion to the post of Nato’s supreme commander in Europe, Allen will now return to Kabul and remain in charge in Afghanistan until the investigation is over.
“I can tell you that the president thinks very highly of General Allen and of his service to his country, as well as the job he has done in Afghanistan,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.
“He has faith in General Allen,” Carney said, adding that the White House had known about the Allen strand to the investigation since Friday.
Petraeus resigned last week when it became clear that his affair with married 40-year-old military reservist Paula Broadwell, a military academic who wrote a fawning biography of the general, would become public.
FBI agents stumbled on the liaison after a complaint from Kelley – a close friend of both Petraeus and Allen – who told a federal agent that she had received threatening e-mails.
Investigators traced the mails to Broadwell’s account and discovered that she had been in a relationship with Petraeus, despite both being married.
The threatening e-mails she had sent to Kelley – who told investigators she did not know Broadwell – suggest the biographer was jealous of the socialite’s rapport with the generals at US Central Command in Florida.
In one, according to the Wall Street Journal, Broadwell claimed she had seen Kelley touching “him” provocatively under the table. It is not clear who “him” is in this alleged encounter.
It emerged on Tuesday that the agents had also discovered that Allen had sent a huge number of mails to Kelley, triggering an investigation into whether he had broken the law or any military regulations during the friendship.
In all, the FBI is investigating between 20,000 to 30,000 pages of Allen’s correspondence, a Pentagon official told reporters. The Washington Post said this represented between 200 and 300 e-mails between Kelley and the general.
A Pentagon official said some of the mails were seen as “flirtatious” but said only the investigation could decide if rules were broken.
“‘Flirtatious’ can cover everything from something fairly innocuous all the way over to sexting or something on those lines. It’s a broad term,” the official said.
Petraeus and Broadwell were interviewed separately by investigators in late October and early November and both admitted to the seven-month affair, which the general told friends he ended about “four months ago”.
Petraeus reportedly planned to remain in office and tough it out until last week, when the realisation that the scandal was about to go public prompted him to offer Obama his shock resignation.
The general had been due to testify to Congress this week on the September 11 assault in Benghazi, Libya that killed four Americans, including US ambassador Chris Stevens and two former Navy Seals working for the CIA.
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein said she expected Petraeus would still agree to come forward and testify at a later date, adding that she had seen nothing to link the sex scandal to Benghazi.
The Kelley inquiry comes at a sensitive time for Allen and the Pentagon, who are preparing their recommendations to the White House on the hot topic of the number of US troops to keep in Afghanistan until 2014.
Petraeus took command of the CIA 14 months ago, retiring from the military after a glittering career that saw him lead the 101st Airborne, the US war in Iraq, its Centcom regional command and international forces in Afghanistan.
The retired four-star general, who presided over the 2007 troop “surge” in Iraq, is widely credited with turning the tide of the US war there, though similar efforts have been less successful in Afghanistan.
On Monday, FBI agents searched Broadwell’s North Carolina home, removing bags, boxes and pictures, local media reported. The mother of two has not been seen at her home since Petraeus resigned over the affair.
Broadwell has hired renowned Washington power attorney Robert Muse to represent her, although no criminal charges have yet been brought.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation itself has also come under scrutiny.
On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the FBI agent Kelley contacted about the threatening e-mails, a personal acquaintance of hers, brought the matter to the attention of Republican lawmakers.
The agent apparently believed the bureau was not moving aggressively enough with the investigation, suspecting that his superiors were keen to protect the Democratic president from the fallout.
FBI supervisors had earlier thrown the agent off the case after he became “obsessed” with the matter and become too close to Kelley, the Journal said.
It quoted one official as saying the agent had sent shirtless photos to the complainant well before the e-mail investigation had begun, and said he is currently under investigation by the internal affairs arm of the FBI.