WASHINGTON - Months ago, the FBI linked the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan to a widening scandal that resulted in CIA director David Petraeus' resignation last week, a federal law enforcement official said Tuesday.
But the White House learned of Marine Gen. John Allen's involvement only last week, days before he was to appear before a Senate committee as President Obama's nominee to be the chief U.S. military commander in Europe.
Allen's Thursday confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee was postponed Tuesday, pending the outcome of a Defense Department's review of Allen's questionable e-mail communications with 37-year-old Tampa socialite Jill Kelley, who triggered the broader FBI inquiry that ultimately cost Petraeus his job last week.
The e-mails, described by the law enforcement official as flirtatious, were contained in thousands of documents recovered from Kelley's computer. A separate source familiar with the case said Kelley, who is married, was not involved in a sexual relationship with Allen, who also is married. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Yet, Allen's involvement represented a dramatic widening of an inquiry that began in late spring when cyberstalking allegations were first brought to the FBI by Kelley, who has been described as an unpaid social liaison at Florida's MacDill Air Force Base, which is headquarters to the U.S. Central Command. She is not a U.S. government employee.
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The alleged harassing e-mails were later traced to Petraeus' biographer Paula Broadwell, whose records revealed an affair between Broadwell and the then-CIA director and concern that classified material might have been compromised.
The law enforcement official, who has been briefed on the matter but is not authorized to comment publicly, said Allen was never a subject of the criminal investigation. Investigators also have since concluded that no classified information was leaked.
Allen, however, was regarded as a potential witness in the harassment inquiry because of his connection to Kelley, the official said, adding that Broadwell is believed to have also communicated with Allen. Those communications were not of a romantic nature, the official said.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said that President Obama continues to have "faith" in Allen.
Carney sidestepped questions on whether the president was satisfied with the FBI's handling of the probe. Petraeus' link to Broadwell was reported to the White House last week.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Allen would remain in his position while the investigation continues.
"His leadership has been instrumental in achieving the significant progress that ISAF, working alongside our Afghan partners, has made in bringing greater security to the Afghan people and in ensuring that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists," Panetta said. "He is entitled to due process in this matter."
On Capitol Hill, Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said there was no immediate reason for Allen to step down. "I'm not going to jump to conclusions."
Following a Tuesday briefing with CIA Acting Director Michael Morrell, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, said she was not entirely satisfied with how Congress was notified of the Petraeus affair, but she was confident that there were no national security concerns.
"I think that it's really important to note that this was a personal indiscretion, as far as we know,'' Pelosi said. "Why somebody would be personally indiscreet is their own problem. Why they would do it over e-mail is beyond my imagination."
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It was Petraeus who recommended Allen to become his deputy when Petraeus took over Central Command, headquartered in Tampa.
Petraeus told former staffers and friends that he had regularly visited the Kelleys' home overlooking Tampa Bay. Kelley served as a sort of social ambassador for U.S. Central Command, hosting parties for the general when Petraeus was commander there from 2008 to 2010.
Friends and former staff members of Petraeus told the Associated Press that he has assured them his relationship with Kelley was platonic. They said Petraeus was shocked to learn last summer of Broadwell's e-mails to Kelley.
In a White House statement early Tuesday, National Security spokesman Tommy Vietor said Obama has held Allen's nomination at Panetta's request. Obama, the statement said, "remains focused on fully supporting our extraordinary troops and coalition partners in Afghanistan, who Gen. Allen continues to lead as he has so ably done for over a year."
MORE: Petraeus and Broadwell used 'e-mail trick' during affair
On Monday, FBI agents searched the Charlotte home of Broadwell, who is also Petraeus' biographer. Broadwell had high security clearances as part of her former job as a reserve Army major in military intelligence. But those clearances are only in effect when a soldier is on active duty, which she was not at the time she researched the biography.
FBI spokeswoman Shelley Lynch said agents arrived shortly before 9 p.m. at Broadwell's home. Lynch declined to elaborate on what prompted the search.
Earlier Monday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the FBI had concluded that no classified material related to Petraeus had been compromised.
After a Tuesday briefing with acting CIA Director Michael Morrell on Capitol Hill, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, said she was not entirely satisfied with how Congress was notified of the Petraeus affair, but she was confident that there were no national security concerns.
"I think there are some answers we have to have about notification of Congress, I don't have any reason to think that there are any national security issues at stake in what has transpired," she said. "I think that it's really important to note that this was a personal indiscretion, as far as we know. Why somebody would be personally indiscreet is their own problem, why they would do it over e-mail is beyond my imagination."
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A Pentagon official said he did not know whether Petraeus is mentioned in the e-mails.
The FBI also looked into whether a separate set of e-mails between Petraeus and Broadwell might involve any security breach. That will be a key question Wednesday in meetings involving congressional intelligence committee leaders, FBI deputy director Sean Joyce andMorell.
In another twist to the case, the FBI agent Kelley asked to investigate the harassing e-mails is being investigated by the FBI for allegedly sending a shirtless picture of himself to Kelley, according to a federal law enforcement official.
The photograph was allegedly sent to Kelley well before she brought him the harassment allegations in the late spring or early summer. After receiving them, he passed them to cybercrime investigators in the Tampa office, the official said.
The official said the agent's actions had no bearing on the "legitimacy'' of the harassment allegations.
"Frankly, it's a side issue; an embarrassment,'' the official said.
The official described the photograph as a shirtless image of the agent, but "not obscene.'' The matter is being handled as a "performance issue,'' the official said.
Allen earned a reputation as an effective and innovative commander in western Iraq in 2007 when he helped stitch together a loose network of Sunni tribes that allied themselves with U.S. forces and turned on al-Qaeda.
That accomplishment helped beat down a vicious insurgency that threatened to overwhelm Iraq and drew the attention of Petraeus, who was overall commander in Iraq at the time.
Obama on Friday accepted Petraeus' resignation.
Lawmakers have said they should have been told earlier about the affair and are asking what the FBI knew and when it notified top Obama administration officials.
The White House wasn't informed of the FBI investigation that involved Petraeus until Nov. 6, Election Day, although agents began looking at Petraeus' actions months earlier, sometime during the summer. Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein said she first learned of the matter from the media late last week and confirmed it in a phone call to the then-CIA director on Friday.
"It's just tragic," Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said on NBC. "This has the elements in some ways of a Hollywood movie or a trashy novel."
Kevin Johnson and Aamer Madhani