Paul J. Richards/AP/File
In this July 2011 file photo, USMC Gen. John Allen (l.) and Army Gen. David Petraeus, greet former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (r.) as he lands in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Be wary about what you read on the Petraeus scandal

Welcome to the 'wilderness of mirrors.' For those of us on the outside, great care should be taken in assessing each new 'reveal.'

General David Petraeus was the most lionized general of his generation. General John R. Allen, the marine who replaced him as head of the Afghan war when Petraeus went to the CIA, was likewise the subject of near unanimously fawning press.

That is all over. St. David's halo has been permanently dented by the revelations of his affair with Paula Broadwell, the army reservist who he anointed as his personal biographer. And the strange tale of sex and secrets is only growing stranger, with Ms. Broadwell's North Carolina home thoroughly searched by FBI agents last night.

General Allen, who was expected to fly through a pro-forma confirmation hearing on his appointment as the head of US forces in Europe on Thursday, is now caught up in the middle of it all, though it's hard to say precisely how with any certainty, with contradictory reports flooding from unnamed "officials" and "sources" to various DC-focused reporters. 

Last night, an unidentified "senior defense official" told reporters that Jill Kelley, a married Tampa Bay socialite who complained to an FBI acquaintance that she was receiving anonymous and threatening emails over her relationship with Gen. Petraeus, was linked in some way to Allen. Ms. Kelley's complaint led to the FBI probe that forced the public revelation of Petraeus' affair with Broadwell.

What's the link to Allen? Well, The Washington Post originally reported that, according to the Pentagon official, "the FBI was looking at 20,000-30,000 pages of email between Allen and Kelley that contained "potentially inappropriate" content."

That claim has been partially walked back by the same reporter in a followup in the Post this morning, The Post now reports the original allegation as: "According to a senior U.S. defense official, the FBI has uncovered between 20,000 and 30,000 pages of documents — most of them e-mails — that contain “potentially inappropriate” communication between Allen and Jill Kelley."

The distinction might seem subtle, but it isn't. The first suggests 20,000 or more emails between the two, a staggering volume that's suggestive more of forwarding on floods of email from his inbox rather than personal communication. The second refers to 20,000 or more "documents" that might contain "inappropriate" email between Kelley and Allen. That is, any contact between the two, inappropriate or not, is a subset of a large number, not its entirety.

The Post also quotes another unnamed "senior" official who appears to take Allen's side in this confusing tale. According to the second anonymous source, Allen and Kelley exchanged “'a few hundred e-mails over a couple of years,'” beginning when Allen was the deputy commander at the Central Command, this senior official said. But “most of them were about routine stuff. 'He’s never been alone with her,' the senior official said. 'Did he have an affair? No.'"

What's going on here? Well, welcome to the "wilderness of mirrors," as legendary CIA counter-intelligence boss James Jesus Angleton once called the world of deception and counter-deception in intelligence. In this case, the wilderness is the happy hunting grounds of national security reporters and the anonymous sources who love them, with self-serving spin, efforts to undermine rivals, and leaks made by concerned whistle-blowers all echoing through the hills and valleys daily.

For those of us on the outside, great care should be taken in assessing each new "reveal." For the moment, Allen's appointment to Supreme Allied Commander Europe is on hold, and if it turns out his emails with Kelley were about more than charitable balls and base dances, he will never take up that post.

So what of it? The politics of this scandal will reverberate for months, and is particularly messy given that Petraeus was also originally due for questioning this week on the large CIA operation in Benghazi that was targeted by a militia on Sept. 11, leaving four US government employees dead. But has a blow been dealt to the US military or to its intelligence capabilities?

Probably not. For each general appointed to a high post, there are other candidates just as qualified who didn't get the job. As for the leadership of the CIA, Petraeus was far from indispensable there.

The Afghan war will continue to sputter along, and the debates over the role of the CIA in the government's drone assassination program abroad, which has been championed by President Obama, will continue. Much as they were with Petraeus and Allen in harness.

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