Gen. David H. Petraeus had just assumed his new role as U.S. Central Command chief in 2009 when he began introducing his staff to a young Harvard University researcher who was writing his biography. The woman, Paula Broadwell, then 37, had never written a book and had almost no journalistic experience. But that wasn’t the only thing about her that made the general’s aides nervous.
Petraeus — already the most acclaimed U.S. military commander in recent decades — had until then been extraordinarily careful in managing his public image, allowing limited access to a handful of journalists, former aides say. Yet, when it came to Broadwell, he seemed eager to throw his own rulebook out the window.
Over the next two years, the two would spend countless hours together in interviews, in Petraeus’s headquarters in Tampa and, later, in Kabul, where he was sent as commander of U.S. troops. They ran together and occasionally traveled together in Petraeus’s military airplane.
The general appeared to have developed a special bond with his enthusiastic but untested biographer, aides say, and Broadwell appeared willing to take full advantage of her special access.
“I found her relationship with him to be disconcerting,” said a former aide to Petraeus, one of several who insisted on anonymity in order to speak candidly about his former boss. “Those who worked for him never tried to leverage our relationship with him. It seemed to a lot of us that she didn’t have that filter.”
The full extent of the bond was exposed Friday when Petraeus, 60, abruptly resigned as CIA director, acknowledging in a statement that he had been unfaithful to his wife of 38 years. The resignation marked a stunning career reversal for Petraeus, a storied commander whose successes in Iraq and Afghanistan had made him a hero to millions of Americans and won him a perennial mention as a possible future candidate for U.S. president.
Telephone and e-mail requests for interviews with Broadwell were not returned.
For Broadwell, who is also married, the startling turn of events has reportedly been painful as well. After writing a best-selling and highly laudatory book about Petraeus, she appears to have initiated the series of events that led to his public humiliation. Investigators say threatening e-mails from Broadwell to another woman led to the discovery of the affair between the biographer and her subject. It is an outcome made more poignant because she has been — and remains — zealous in her devotion to the general, friends and colleagues say.
“She was relentlessly pro-Petraeus,” said a longtime Afghan policy expert who met Broadwell in Kabul. “There was no room for a conversation of shortcomings of the Petraeus theology. She wasn’t a reporter. She struck me as an acolyte.”
According to her own account, Broadwell met Petraeus in 2006, when she was a graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Petraeus had gone to Harvard to talk about his experiences as commander of the 101st Airborne Division during the 2003 invasion of Iraq and about a new counterinsurgency manual he was developing. After the presentation, Broadwell — an Army reservist and, like Petraeus, a West Point graduate — was invited to attend a dinner with the general and a few of other students.
“I introduced myself to then-Lt. Gen. Petraeus and told him about my research interests,” she would write in her book, “All In: The Education of Gen. David Petraeus.” She said the general handed her his business card and offered to put her in touch with other researchers working on similar issues. (Vernon Loeb, the local editor of The Washington Post, was a co-author of the book.)
“I later discovered that he was famous for this type of mentoring and networking, especially with aspiring soldiers-scholars,” she wrote.
In 2008, while pursuing a doctorate, Broadwell decided to write a case study of Petraeus’s leadership style. After several e-mail exchanges, Petraeus, an avid runner, invited her to discuss her project during a run along the Potomac River.
Passing the test
The two discovered a common bond: Broadwell, a high school track star who won awards for fitness at West Point, earned the general’s admiration by keeping up with his grueling, six-minute-mile pace.
“I think I passed the test,” she would later say, “but I didn’t bother to transcribe the interview.”
Soon after, Broadwell decided to turn her dissertation into a book. With the blessing of Petraeus, she made the first of about a half-dozen extended trips to Afghanistan to spend time with him and interview members of his senior staff and field commanders.
Her trips were not without controversy. Aides were stunned by the close access that Broadwell was granted — and that she occasionally flaunted. At the same time, some were unimpressed by her reporting style and thin journalistic résumé.