Paula Broadwell was a rising star who seemed destined for a sparkling career in foreign policy. A West Point graduate who excelled in triathlons, she was pursuing a doctorate at Harvard University and had found a mentor in Gen. David H. Petraeus, an iconic U.S. military leader.
But in 2007, Broadwell was asked to leave the doctoral program at Harvard, where she had met Petraeus a year earlier, because her coursework did not meet the university’s demanding standards, according to people familiar with what happened there.
What Broadwell did next was a signature feature of her resilience and drive — and what detractors say is her tendency to overstate her credentials.
Broadwell eventually leveraged her unfinished dissertation into a best-selling biography of Petraeus, a project that gave her almost unlimited access to the general when he commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan and later when he was director of the CIA. That access led to the extramarital affair that upended Petraeus’s career and shined a bright light on Broadwell’s.
A few months after leaving Harvard in 2008, Broadwell began a full-bore effort to remake herself as a highly visible player in Washington’s insular foreign policy community. At the time, she and her husband, a radiologist, were raising toddlers and preparing to move to Charlotte, where he was setting up his practice.
In the summer of 2009, Broadwell told several prominent experts on counterinsurgency warfare that she had been asked by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the newly installed commander in Afghanistan, to assemble a team of first-tier academics and experts to conduct an outside evaluation of McChrystal’s highly anticipated review of his war strategy.
She pressed experts in Washington and Cambridge, Mass., to join the panel and lobbied senior U.S. military officials in Kabul to back her fledgling “red team” effort, military jargon for an outsider evaluation. The prospective team held a couple of meetings, according to one person who was involved.
But senior military officials who were on McChrystal’s staff said Broadwell was not asked to spearhead an evaluation. The officials, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Broadwell and Petraeus, said her attempt to assemble a red-team review panel was rejected after McChrystal’s aides decided that her experience, her connections and her academic credentials were too thin.
“She was trying to pull together something way over her head,” said Mark R. Jacobson, a former deputy NATO senior civilian representative in Afghanistan whom Broadwell approached to serve on the team. Jacobson said he admired Broadwell’s pluck. “It was the kind of move you make in Washington when you are trying to make a name,” he said.
Others who had been approached to be part of the group said they questioned her assurances that she had the backing of top military officials. In a 2010 interview on a Web site focused on leadership, Broadwell was still saying that McChrystal had asked her to assemble the leadership team.
Broadwell, 40, has not responded to e-mail and telephone messages since the Petraeus scandal broke last week. Her attorney, Robert F. Muse, did not respond to a request for comment on the specific information in this article. Harvard declined to comment on Broadwell’s time there.
Going to Afghanistan
Broadwell eventually found her way to Afghanistan. In June 2010, President Obama removed McChrystal as commander because of comments his aides made to a journalist. The president turned to Petraeus to replace him.
Throughout his career, Petraeus had developed a reputation as an intensely competitive and talented officer who sometimes came off as desperate for praise. He could be a generous mentor to junior officers, but he often alienated his peers with his determination to win every prize and award, no matter how insignificant. The general’s staff officers said that Broadwell played to Petraeus’s ego.
Petraeus, 60, has told friends in recent days that he admired Broadwell’s “combination of intellect and physical prowess,” said retired Col. Peter Mansoor. “She looks like a female version of him in some respects,” Mansoor said.
Broadwell stayed in touch with Petraeus as part of her research. She visited him at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, where he served as commander before being assigned to Afghanistan.
When Petraeus moved to Kabul, Broadwell began making regular trips to the war zone. By then, she had decided to turn her academic research into a book about Petraeus, and her access to him helped her win a six-figure book deal — and a way into the elite foreign policy circles in Washington.