Prosecuting Paula Broadwell could be a difficult task

Paula Broadwell of Charlotte wrote the David Petraeus biography, “All In.”
Paula Broadwell of Charlotte wrote the David Petraeus biography, “All In.” OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

Is Paula Broadwell next?

On Tuesday, new court documents showed that former commanding general and CIA Director David Petraeus – Broadwell’s one-time lover – has agreed to plead guilty to sharing wartime military secrets with her.

Broadwell, 42, was working with Petraeus on his biography in August 2011 when he loaned her eight “black books” he had compiled while serving as the military chief in Afghanistan, the documents say.

The notebooks contained highly classified information, which prosecutors say Petraeus later lied about having and sharing with Broadwell, then a major in the Army Reserves with a security clearance.

Tuesday, Petraeus was officially charged with a crime: unlawful removal/retention of classified documents.

As for Broadwell, experts in national security issues say the Charlotte resident carries some criminal liability.

The West Point grad could be charged with the same crime as Petraeus, they say, but any prosecution would be tricky – particularly if Broadwell makes the case that she was acting as a journalist in writing her book.

“If she can prove she was a journalist, the odds of her being prosecuted go way down,” said Mark Zaid, a Washington, D.C., attorney who specializes in national security issues. “There has not been a case against a journalist possessing or retaining or using classified information in decades.”

Why? Because top national reporters covering the government routinely use leaked government secrets for stories, Zaid said.

Broadwell already seems to be publicly touting her journalistic ties. Though she declined to comment on Tuesday’s events, her Twitter profile recently was changed to include “Freedom of Press & Gender in the Media Activist” among her interests. Her header photo was changed to show a fist gripping a pencil with the words “Defend our free press” in bold.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, said he doesn’t expect Broadwell to be accused of receiving classified material. Such a charge has never been successfully prosecuted in a non-spying case, he said.

“A committed prosecutor can always come up with a crime. Maybe he can say, ‘Well, she returned the black books to Petraeus when she should have returned them to a responsible official.’ My gut feeling is that no one is going to make that argument,” Aftergood said, particularly since none of the information in question was published.

An obstruction of justice charge may be more likely since Broadwell had claimed in the past that she did not receive classified information from Petraeus – an assertion undermined by the new documents. Zaid said the charge is a frequent and convenient “weapon” for federal investigators to use.

But even that approach may have been weakened, Aftergood said, given that Petraeus admitted lying to investigators about the government secrets but was not charged with obstruction. “Whatever her offense, it would seem to be less than his.”

Broadwell, a West Point graduate who moved to Charlotte in 2009 with her radiologist husband, Scott, and two young sons, was first investigated by the government in 2012 on a complaint by Florida resident Jill Kelley, who told the FBI she received threatening emails about her friendship with Petraeus.

Those emails were traced back to Broadwell. An FBI search of her email accounts uncovered the affair with Petraeus. Broadwell voluntarily gave the FBI access to her computer, where they found classified information. The FBI also returned to search her home a few months later, removing several boxes.

When federal prosecutors decided in December 2012 not to pursue cyberstalking charges, Broadwell’s lawyer released a letter to the media from the U.S. Attorney in Florida that cleared her.

But Kelley has since sued the federal government for invasion of her privacy, claiming the FBI and Defense Department leaked information about her to the media.

Gordon: 704-358-5095

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