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The Very Private Jill Kelley

From Petraeus pen pal to constitutional crusader

Tim Boyle/Getty Images

In December, Marc Rotenberg received a call from a woman seeking advice on how to become an advocate for e-mail privacy. The call in itself was not surprising—Rotenberg is, after all, the executive director of a public interest group called the Electronic Privacy Information Center—but the identity of the caller was. It was Jill Kelley, the Tampa socialite whose complaint to the FBI that she was receiving stalking e-mails from a woman named Paula Broadwell led to the year's biggest sex scandal. With a single stroke, Kelley triggered federal investigations into potentially inappropriate e-mail exchanges not only between Broadwell and General David Petraeus—leading to his resignation as CIA director—but also between the NATO commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, and Kelley herself. Kelley believes federal officials violated her privacy by leaking both her name and e-mails to the media. Rotenberg suggested that sharing her story with a privacy-minded journalist could help bring attention to her cause and offered to set up an interview.

That is how, on a cold and rainy day after Christmas, I ended up sitting in Rotenberg's Washington, D.C., office, decorated with Louis Brandeis quotations, waiting for Kelley to arrive. She swept in, dressed in a long black coat and black velvet dress. After confirming with her that the interview was on the record, I turned on the tape recorder and asked her to describe what pained her most about her privacy being violated. She jumped right in: "I'm such a private person. The fact that now my e-mails are read and that now I'm a public figure, a household name—I can't explain to you how unsettling that is. I never had a Facebook, nothing."

To illustrate the great value she places on privacy, Kelley told a story about the day she and her husband, Scott, were watching the Yankees with her good friend George Steinbrenner and she asked him to join them afterward at a restaurant for dinner. "George laughed and said, 'I want you to understand that there's nothing more priceless in life than privacy. ... You can walk out and be a private citizen and no one will bother you.'"

"I'll never forget that," Kelley continued, "the fact that privacy is priceless."

Kelley says she didn't want to go to the FBI after receiving threatening anonymous e-mails on her husband's account, but her friend General Allen insisted. "I said, 'John ... I don't trust them,' and he said, 'No, Jill, they keep the wolves from the door.'" She then approached another friend, Frederick Humphries II, a special agent for the Tampa FBI field office. (Humphries became known as the shirtless FBI agent when, in an e-mail privacy scandal of his own, he e-mailed Kelley, from an account he shared with his wife, a joke photo of himself bare-chested and surrounded by two bullet-ridden dummies, with the caption, "Which one's Fred?") Kelley says the FBI "promised me up and down my name would never be known, and here I am a household name." Beyond that, she is upset about how the scandal has marred her reputation online. "I thought I would get a Wikipedia for my book on cancer," she said sadly. "I wrote a book on cancer—I didn't publish it yet. I thought I'd get a Wikipedia for something honorable, not because some guy leaked my name in a scandal that brought down two great leaders."

Kelley believes the FBI's leak of her name may have violated the federal Privacy Act and that the leak will discourage future whistleblowers. She said she would like to sue the federal government. (For more general representation, in November she hired the Washington super-lawyer Abbe Lowell, chief counsel to the Democrats during the impeachment of Bill Clinton.) But Kelley is equally outraged that FBI agents read e-mails from her private account even though she believes she only gave them consent to read e-mails from her husband's account. Having mostly managed to strike a discrete tone on the subject of Broadwell—"I never met this girl in my life. ... It's not like we're romantic rivals"—Kelley became more intense. "Did you see her e-mails?" she asked me. "I mean this girl was seriously off, out there."

Kelley allowed herself to be overcome by the centrality of her role in an historic drama. "When I spoke to Fred, he said, 'Jill, they read your e-mails, and they shouldn't have been reading your e-mails, and they read Petraeus's e-mails, and they read Allen's e-mails, and these two greatest leaders are going to come down.'" I asked Kelley why she thought the FBI had read her e-mails. She leaned forward. "I personally thought to myself, maybe they don't like Dave Petraeus and they thought this could be used against him, like blackmail."

To bring our conversation back to the subject of privacy, I asked Kelley which of the e-mails between her and Allen—the media had reported 30,000 of them—embarrassed her most. After emphasizing that the number was more like five a day, once every three days, Kelley explained, "Don't get me wrong, some of them are flirtatious. I mean we never had an affair, but I guess at two in the morning, when he's e-mailing me, sometimes he'd be flirtatious."

As dusk fell, Kelley became more expansive. She compared herself to Erin Brockovich. She promised that briefs would be written and bills passed about her case. She said: "I have the resources that I could make a change in the world, whether it was diplomatically, which was my last life, or now it would be constitutionally. It's all part of democracy and freedom." As she related the attention she was receiving, she told me, "A guy on a plane asked for my autograph—usually it's Dave who they ask—and I got an e-mail today from the head of state of Poland who said, 'What happened to you will change the world.'" After lamenting that those charged with enforcing the law were abusing it, she rested her case.

Kelley was so energized about promoting the cause of privacy that perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised when, the next day, she got to work defending her own. She called me and claimed that she considered our conversation legally privileged and off the record. (Rotenberg replied to her by e-mail that "the meeting was set up with a journalist, clearly interested in writing a story.") Then Abbe Lowell followed up with a request from Kelley for the interview tape itself. I agreed to share it, and Lowell agreed on Kelley's behalf that I could treat the conversation as on the record after all. But several days later, Lowell relayed that Kelley had decided that he could no longer represent her on this matter.

The lawyer Gloria Allred, a longtime master of the press conference, was suddenly on the case. Finally, after these endless negotiations, Kelley granted an interview to The Daily Beast's Howard Kurtz on the same subjects. Kelley had stumbled upon a paradox: In the age of celebrity, it's hard to promote privacy while maintaining complete control of your own.