The Deeper Rot

  • Share
  • Read Later
Getty Images

KIss of Death: David Petraeus embraces Jill Kelley -- the woman whose complaint about harassing emails to an FBI friend led to the uncovering of Petraeus' affair with Paul Broadwell -- after accepting a community service award outside Kelley's home in the summer of 2011.

There’s something beyond the affair itself that’s troubling in the Petraeus scandal. It’s the toxic mess in Tampa that led to its disclosure.

There’s something vaguely off-putting about Tampa’s suddenly news-worthy twin sisters, Jill Kelley and Natalie Khawam. It was Jill whose FBI pal sparked the probe that revealed Petraeus’ adultery and led him to resign as CIA chief last Friday. There is also a growing number of press reports detailing the sisters’ checkered history involving a questionable charity, bankruptcy, foreclosures, lawsuits and a shady business deal.

We all know folks like that, and so do four-star generals. But becoming close to them, having them over for Christmas dinner and vouching for them – on the official stationery of your military office — in a bitter custody battle is unsettling. “It’s very useful to be reminded from time to time that four-star generals are not gods,” retired Army colonel Andrew Bacevich said on the PBS NewsHour Wednesday, “but mere mortals.”

Thursday morning, the Pentagon agreed. “Over the past several months, the Secretary [of Defense, Leon Panetta] has spoken with the service secretaries, service chiefs, and combatant commanders about those instances when senior officers have not lived up to the standards expected of them,” spokesman George Little said in a statement. “This week, the Secretary directed General [Martin] Dempsey [chairman of the Joint Chiefs] to work with the other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to review how to better foster a culture of stewardship among our most senior military officers.”

They might start by looking at Tampa, home of the U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command, both located on MacDill Air Force Base, beautifully situated on a peninsula jutting into Tampa Bay.

Why is a woman throwing fancy parties for the brass at the white-columned $1.5 million mansion on Bayshore Boulevard just outside MacDill that she and her husband cannot afford (foreclosure is pending) and share with her sister? Lavish parties there featured Champagne, caviar and valet parking. A Lincoln Navigator SUV and Mercedes S500 sedan (complete with an “honorary consul” license plate issued by the state of Florida…too bad Dave Barry gave up his column) have been outside the house, which features a painting of the Kelley couple hanging in the living room.

Being nouveax riche isn’t a crime, of course, and befriending the military, especially in a time of war, can be emotionally rewarding. But social climbers shouldn’t — or shouldn’t be allowed to — scamper over the uniforms of U.S. generals in their rush to get there.

The sisters upset the more traditional civilian supporters of MacDill, according to Thursday’s Tampa Bay Times:

Mark Rosenthal remembers the first time he saw Jill Kelley and her identical twin in action. It was at a dinner party at then-Gen. David Petraeus’ house, and he was appalled. “They took over the whole conversation,” he said. While the man responsible for overseeing two wars nodded politely, Kelley and her sister, Natalie Khawam, talked nonstop about shopping and traveling. “To me it was out of line.”

Kelley called local police last Sunday in an effort to get reporters away from her house. “I’m an honorary consul general, so I have inviolability, so they should not be able to cross my property,” she said, according to a recording of the call. “I don’t know if you want to get diplomatic protection involved as well.”

Nutcase immunity?

Why were senior military officers attending parties at her home? Why aren’t they sending their regrets, and giving her the names of worthy organizations she could donate time and money to, instead? Outfits combatting PTSD and homeless veterans, perhaps?

Why are senior officers, current and retired, sending letters – emblazoned with their military rank – to intervene in a domestic custody case involving Natalie Khawam? Marine General John Allen took time off from running the war in Afghanistan, and Petraeus took time off from using CIA drones to kill militants in Pakistan and elsewhere, to write letters in September to the District of Columbia Superior Court supporting Khawam as she sought to gain more visitation rights with her 3-year-old son.

“We have, on many occasions, observed Natalie and her son…including when we hosted them and the Kelley family for Christmas dinner this past year,” Petraeus wrote in his Sept. 20 letter to the court [which read, under his signature, “General, U.S. Army (Retired)”]. “It is unfortunate, in my view, that her interaction with her son has been so limited by the custody settlement.”

Two days later, Allen drafted a similar missive. “She is a dedicated mother, whose only focus is to provide the necessary care, love and support for her son,” he wrote, signing his letter above a typewritten line reading “General, United States Marine Corps.” He added: “In light of Natalie’s maturity, integrity and steadfast commitment to raising her child, I humbly request your reconsideration of the existing mandated custody settlement.”

Judge Neal Kravitz has yet to rule on changes sought in the custody arrangement between Khawam and her ex-husband, Grayson Wolfe. But last year Kravitz said that Khawam’s “misrepresentations about virtually everything” would continue, according to an AP review of the case file.

“Ms. Khawam appears to lack any appreciation or respect for the importance of honesty and integrity in her interactions with her family, employers and others with whom she comes in contact,” he wrote in November 2011. Not only did Kravitz award her ex-husband custody of their son last year, but also ordered her to pay $350,000 of his legal bills. Khawam filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in April after racking up more than $3 million in debt.

Why does a family judge know this about Khawam’s character, but two of the nation’s leading military officers who claim to have spent a fair amount of time with her do not?

What does this say about their judgment?

Military officers are trained early and often to “stay in their lane,” meaning to avoid straying into issues about which they are ignorant, or for which they are not responsible, or both.

When did Duty, Honor, Country become Debutantes, Hors d’oeuvres, Custody?