We've all read about the process that revealed former CIA
director David Petraeus' affair with Paula Broadwell: The FBI began looking at
Jill Kelley's emails after she complained about receiving anonymous electronic
threats (and possibly info
about generals at U.S. Central Command headquarters). Investigators traced
the threatening emails to Broadwell's IP address. Agents realized both
Broadwell and Kelley had ties to the nation's top spy and got Broadwell to
confess to being his lover. At that point, they searched her computer and email
where they actually found Petraeus' messages in a
Gmail account he shared with Broadwell, as well as classified documents.
But what exactly allows the FBI to look at all of a private
U.S. citizen's electronic communications?
Basically, if a field agent believes that a crime -- harassment,
for example-- might have been committed over email he or she will start by
looking at the threatening messages and possibly more in the victim's email
account. If it appears that there's more evidence to suggest a crime or the
possibility of a crime in progress, the agent will seek a subpoena from a local
judge allowing him to monitor the emails of the person sending the electronic
"If they can say with some confidence that it's a potential
crime, they can probably do some preliminary work on their own without too much
difficulty," Stewart Baker, an attorney who specializes in telecommunications
law at Steptoe and Johnson, told Killer Apps.
"In order to get access to the account information, what I
would do if I were investigating this is, I would start by saying, I don't need
to read this person's emails, I just need to know who's logging onto this
account, what IP address they have, look for other information about that IP
address and what other email addresses is this IP address logging onto -- so
that you can start to see a pattern. They can do that without reading any of
Paula Broadwell's emails," said Baker, who also served as assistant secretary
of homeland security for policy.
Once agents figure out who their suspect is -- Broadwell in
the Petraeus affair -- they will want to actually read the emails being sent by
the suspect; for that they would likely need a search warrant. That warrant to
search through the contents of the emails could be issued by a magistrate or,
possibly by a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, according to Baker.
"To read the most recent emails, they would [potentially]
need to get a search warrant; which means there should be a search warrant
justification somewhere, signed by a judge, saying there's probably cause to
believe there's evidence of a crime -- presumably the same crime as before,
harassment and threats," said Baker. "It's not hard to get probable cause if
you can show that the IP address that was logging on to the account that sent
the harassing emails is the same IP address that used the other account
[between say Petraeus and Broadwell] so you ought to be able to access the
other account so you can read the mail and you're there."
The risk that someone could have used Petraeus' affair with
Broadwell to try to blackmail him into giving up secrets provides further
justification for digging around in Broadwell's email -- as does the fact that
investigators found classified information on her computer (that did not come
from Petraeus) and they had to find out where those documents came from.