In unusual CIA case, FBI detoured from usual path
Monday, November 19, 2012
WASHINGTON (AP) — The way the FBI responded to Jill Kelley’s complaint about receiving harassing emails, which ultimately unraveled or scarred the careers of ex-CIA Director David Petraeus and Marine Gen. John Allen, is the exception, not the rule.
The FBI commonly declines to pursue cyberstalking cases without compelling evidence of serious or imminent harm to an individual, victims of online harassment, advocacy groups and computer crime experts told The Associated Press.
But in the sensational episode that uncovered the spy chief’s adulterous affair, the FBI’s cyberdivision devoted months of tedious investigative work to uncover who had sent insulting and anonymous messages about Kelley, the Florida socialite who was friendly with Petraeus and Allen — and friends with a veteran FBI counterterrorism agent in Tampa.
The bureau probably would have ignored Kelley’s complaint had it not been for information in the emails that indicated the sender was aware of the travel schedules of Petraeus and Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Instead, the FBI considered this from the earliest stages to be an exceptional case, and one so sensitive that FBI Director Robert Mueller and Attorney General Eric Holder were kept notified of its progress.
How the FBI’s investigation unfolded — especially its decision not to alert the White House, the director of national intelligence or Congress about its discovery of Petraeus’s sexual affair until Election Day — is under scrutiny, especially because there is no indication so far that any criminal charges will be filed.
Mueller and his deputy, Sean Joyce, have met privately with lawmakers to defend how the inquiry was handled. Holder said on Thursday that law enforcement officials did not inform the president and Congress about the probe because it did not uncover any threat to national security.
The FBI’s cybersquads, like the one in Tampa that investigated the Petraeus case, are primarily focused on blocking criminals and terrorists from using the Internet to threaten national security or steal valuable information stored in government and corporate computers.
An AP review of court records found only nine cases over the past two years that identified cyberstalking or cyberharassment as the underlying crime in federal criminal complaints. In one recent case, a Michigan man was charged with cyberstalking after using the Internet and text messages to contact female victims, many of them minors, in an effort to obtain pornographic pictures.
“They turn people away all the time on the grounds that (cyberstalking) is a civil matter, not a criminal one,” said Danielle Citron, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law who studies cyberharassment issues.
But the FBI considered Kelley’s complaint significant. And for good reason, said David Laufman, a former federal prosecutor who handled national security cases. “Most cases aren’t going to get this level of attention or resources,” he said.
“But most cases don’t involve the incumbent director of the CIA or the head of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan.”
Most cyberstalking allegations are handled by state and local law enforcement organizations, said Michelle Garcia, director of the Stalking Resource Center at the National Center for Victims of Crime.
The Petraeus case has drawn attention to how easy it is for the government to examine emails and computer files if they believe a law was broken. The FBI and other investigating agencies armed with subpoenas and warrants routinely gain access to email accounts offered by Google, Yahoo and other Internet providers.
Civil liberties groups have criticized the FBI for pursuing the investigation of the emails to Kelley because there is no indication the messages contained any threatening language or classified information. The episode underscores the need to strengthen the legal protections for electronic communications, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
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