For the past week, Washington has been embroiled in an ever-escalating sex scandal involving Gen. David Petraeus, his biographer Paula Broadwell, and a third woman named Jill Kelley, and now, tangentially it seems, Gen. John Allen. The affair between Petraeus and Broadwell was discovered by the FBI and revealed late last week when Petraeus resigned as director of the CIA. But while the salacious details have kept Washington's press corps busy, the details about how the bureau ever got this information should concern us far more.
Every turn in the investigation that led to Petraeus's resignation perfectly illustrates the incredible and dangerous reach of the massive United States surveillance apparatus, which, through hundreds of billions of dollars in post-9/11 programs -- coupled with weakened privacy laws and lack of oversight -- has affected the civil liberties of every American for years. The only difference here is the victim of the surveillance state's reach was not a faceless American, but the head one of the agencies tasked to carry it out.
The spark that set events in motion was a handful of allegedly harassing emails sent anonymously to Kelley, a friend of Petraeus's, which she brought to a friend at the FBI. Yet it's unclear why an investigation was ever opened, given that everything publicly known about the emails suggests they weren't illegal.
As the Daily Beast reported, they said things like "Who do you think you are? ... You parade around the base ... You need to take it down a notch." The story noted, "when the FBI friend showed the emails to the cyber squad in the Tampa field office, her fellow agents noted that the absence of any overt threats."
It seems the deciding factor in opening the investigation was not the emails' content, but the fact that the FBI agent was friendly with Kelley. (Even more disturbing, the same FBI agent has now been accused of becoming "obsessed" with the Tampa socialite, sent shirtless pictures to her, and has been removed from the case.)
But these initial emails reportedly did not identify Broadwell as the sender and only made passing reference to Petraeus. So how did the FBI end up uncovering the affair? They obtained the IP addresses attached to the emails, which can give a fairly accurate location of the email sender. This "metadata," as it's called, can be obtained by law enforcement without a warrant or any court oversight. All that is needed is a subpoena signed by a prosecutor indicating the information is relevant to an ongoing investigation.
Metadata can include not only your IP address, but to whom and when you're sending emails, and in other cases, the exact location of your cell phone for weeks or months at a time. And police get this type of data in everyday investigations without a warrant at a staggering and alarming rate.
But finding the location of the sender was just the beginning. From there, "armed with information about where the messages originated, the FBI is believed to have drawn up a list, as far as was possible, of who was at those locations when messages were sent," the BBC reported. Because the IP addresses were hotel WiFi hotspots, the FBI obtained the hotel records at the various locations.
But how, exactly? Again, we don't know the precise procedure used, but hotel records -- which are private -- can also be obtained with just a subpoena and do not require a judge to sign off on anything.