Fifty shades of email: How electronic text seduced David Petraeus

By Virginia Heffernan

Once again, the tabloids are ablaze with the story of intemperate love affairs conducted over email. We’re still using the world’s best digital technology to do what goofy humans do: Exchange sweet nothings, nudie photos and goo-goo gaga love notes.

Look at them: a 60-year-old general, a 58-year-old general, a 40-year-old biographer, a 37-year-old gadfly and a 52-year-old "Sesame Street" puppeteer. A kooky cast of fallible characters who just can’t get enough of electronic mail.

None of them—not former CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus; not Marine Corps Gen. John Allen; not Petraeus’ biographer Paula Broadwell; not the Tampa, Fla., hostess Jill Kelley who led the FBI to discover Petraeus’ affair; and not Kevin Clash, the voice of Elmo, who was accused of having sex with a minor—grew up with the Internet. Like many in their demos, then, they still get a little rabid around email. They love it, not wisely, but too well. For email, evidently, they’ll risk everything: their jobs, families, reputations, franchises, the security of the nation.

After allegations against Clash were revealed this week and then withdrawn, Clash, through his lawyer, said there had been a consensual relationship that began when the accuser was an adult. What’s the evidence of this “relationship”? Eyewitnesses? Stained clothing? No, nothing so three-dimensional. It’s email.

According to the celebrity gossip site TMZ, Clash once emailed his paramour stock smitten stuff, such as “I want you to know that I love you and I will never hurt you” and “I’m here to protect you and make sure your dreams come true.”

After TMZ’s revelations, Sesame Workshop, Clash’s employer, suspended the superstar puppeteer for “violating the company’s policy regarding Internet usage.” An anonymous executive further explained that the company prohibits sending personal email from its server.

Pretty steep punishment for that ubiquitous practice. But the fracas at Sesame Workshop exposes our anxiety about email just as surely as it exposes anxiety about sex. We still don’t have a clue what to do with technology that’s so stimulating, speedy and disinhibiting. So, we go overboard with it. We end up saying things we’d never say to people we’d never say them to.

Even four-star general super-spies go overboard. For the married Petraeus and married Broadwell, email was romantic lifeblood. According to an ABC News source, the FBI—suspecting a breach of Petraeus’ email account—discovered “hundreds if not thousands of emails between Petraeus and Broadwell” in Broadwell’s inbox. The source went on to say that the content of the emails was salacious and indicated an adulterous affair.

A source in law enforcement, who insisted on anonymity, further told the Associated Press that Petraeus and Broadwell were big fans of the old “draft folder” trick (apparently known to terrorists and popularized by the 2008 thriller “Traitor”). This poor man’s drop-box tactic (Google Docs would work just as well) lets you leave messages for another password-holder on an email account by saving messages as drafts, rather than putting them on the open Internet where they can be intercepted. Of course, they can still be accessed. It seems Petraeus and Broadwell also may have used formal electronic drop-boxes. No matter: They got busted.

We all know what other people’s love notes tend to sound like—silly, sweet, embarrassing—so it’s the alleged number that really stands out. Thousands of emails? That estimate suggests that Petraeus and Broadwell, while collaborators on his biography, were also using email the way most of us now use text messaging: for capricious and logistical exchanges. They were writing emails, in other words, instead of talking, kissing or touching—gestures that constitute a real-world relationship between two people sharing physical space. And they were using this relationship substitute the way an addict uses Vicodin: in high doses, compulsively and to the exclusion of other activities.

This affair, which has inspired almost as much commentary as it did email, has been read as a cautionary tale about privacy. But that misses the point. Petraeus and Broadwell didn’t just have the relationship they might have had in analog days and then failed to take precautions with online security. Rather, the entire form of their affair was dictated by the medium. It was epistolary. It was obsessive. It was at a distance. It seemed highly intimate but was in fact easily made public. Like all email. Theirs was a romance made of email, in the language of email, at the speed of email, with the risks and rewards of email.

And then there’s Kelley. Law enforcement officials confirm that Kelley, a military groupie, showed an FBI agent buddy some anonymous trolling emails received by her and Allen, the American commander in Afghanistan. The emails, which implied that Kelley had treacherous designs on Petraeus, ended up pointing to Broadwell and her affair with Petraeus—more email, then.

Thickening the e-plot further, the FBI agent, who has been identified as Frederick W. Humphries, sent shirtless photos to Kelley, and “thousands” more emails, believed to be flirtatious in nature, were exchanged between Kelley and Allen. Allen denies anything improper happened. Who knows? That much email itself seems somewhat obscene.

So email revealed email revealed more email. For oversexed philanderers, these people sure spend a lot of time in inboxes and outboxes and draft folders. Is any one of them doing anything but email? How do they find time to oversee wars? Write biographies? Raise their kids? Have actual 3-D sex? Do they have that kind of intercourse—or do they just spend their sexy time setting up dummy Gmail accounts and cursing the battery time on their iPhones?
Romance, the way these generals and a puppeteer play it, has become another massively multiplayer online role-playing game, an MMORPG akin to World of Warcraft. Maybe if we gave our middle-aged citizens Wiis and PlayStations—where they could create well-muscled avatars, cultivate virtual relationships and win experience points—we’d prevent a lot of family heartbreak and everyone could keep their jobs.