Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Broadwell Case Underscores Broad Scope of Email Investigations

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Broadwell Case Underscores Broad Scope of Email Investigations

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON -- The FBI started its case in June with a collection of five emails, a few hundred kilobytes of data at most.

By the time the probe exploded into public view earlier this month, the FBI was sitting on a mountain of data containing the private communications -- and intimate secrets -- of a CIA director and a U.S. war commander. What the bureau didn't have -- and apparently still doesn't -- is evidence of a crime.

How that happened and what it means for privacy and national security are questions that have induced shudders in Washington and a queasy new understanding of the FBI's comprehensive access to the digital trails left by even top officials.

FBI and Justice Department officials have vigorously defended their handling of the case. "What we did was conduct the investigation the way we normally conduct a criminal investigation," Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday. "We follow the facts."

But in this case, the trail cut across a seemingly vast territory with no clear indication of the boundaries, if any, that the FBI imposed on itself. The thrust of the investigation changed direction repeatedly and expanded dramatically in scope.

A criminal inquiry into email harassment morphed into a national security probe of whether CIA director David Petraeus and the secrets he guarded were at risk. After uncovering an extramarital affair, investigators shifted to the question of whether Mr. Petraeus was guilty of a security breach.

When none of those paths bore results, investigators settled on the single target they are scrutinizing now: Paula Broadwell, the retired general's biographer and mistress, and what she was doing with a cache of classified but apparently inconsequential files.

The investigation's profile has called attention to what legal and privacy experts say are the difficulties of applying constraints meant for gathering physical evidence to online detective work.

Law enforcement officers conducting a legal search have always been able to pursue evidence of other crimes sitting in "plain view." Investigators with a warrant to search a house for drugs can seize evidence of another crime, such as bomb-making. …

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