Panetta warns on Allen conclusions
US defence secretary Leon Panetta has today warned against jumping to conclusions over the actions of the top US commander in Afghanistan, a day after placing him under investigation in a widening scandal that already cost CIA director David Petraeus his position.
Marine General John Allen, who denies any wrongdoing, is being investigated for potentially inappropriate communications with a woman at the centre of the Petraeus case, Jill Kelley, a Florida socialite.
Mr Panetta defended his decision to refer the case to the Pentagon's inspector general and for suspending Gen Allen's nomination to another top position in the US military, saying it was a prudent step "until we determine what the facts are".
"And we will," Mr Panetta told reporters at high-level talks in Australia, also attended by the top US military officer, Gen Martin Dempsey, and secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
At the same time, he praised Gen Allen's work commanding the Afghan war effort, a position he retains despite the inquiry.
"No one should leap to any conclusions here. General Allen is doing an excellent job at ISAF, in leading those forces," Mr Panetta said, referring to the Nato-led force.
"He certainly has my continued confidence to lead our forces and continue the fight."
Ms Clinton acknowledged that allies had raised questions about the Gen Allen case but said there was "no concern whatsoever being expressed to us" about the mission in Afghanistan.
Defence officials and people close to Gen Petraeus say neither he nor Gen Allen had a romantic relationship with Ms Kelley, a 37-year-old wife and mother, who is described as a prominent presence in military circles in Tampa.
She may have been seen as a rival by Gen Petraeus's biographer, Paula Broadwell, who sent Ms Kelley a series of anonymous, harassing emails which touched off an investigation that uncovered evidence of an affair between Gen Petraeus and Ms Broadwell.
According to law enforcement sources, FBI investigators decided to pursue the matter when they found the messages contained information about the CIA chief's activities that was not publicly available.
Ms Kelley had gotten to know both Gen Petraeus and Gen Allen as a volunteer setting up social events at MacDill Air Force Base outside Tampa, headquarters of US Central Command.
The relationship was evidently close enough that both men intervened in a child custody battle involving Ms Kelley's twin sister, Natalie Khawam.
"She is a dedicated mother, whose only focus is to provide the necessary support, love, and care for her son," Gen Allen wrote about Ms Khawam in a September 22nd letter to a Washington, DC, court.
Gen Allen and Ms Kelley communicated often enough over the past two years to produce between 20,000 and 30,000 pages of email and other messages, which were turned over to defence department investigators on Sunday.
The actual volume of communications is likely much smaller, an official said, as the printouts include messages involving other people and email threads including prior communications.
A senior defence official told Reuters the messages were seen as inappropriate because they were "flirtatious" in nature, not because they dealt with sensitive information.
But "flirtatious" may be an understatement. Another US official said the Pentagon only decided to refer the matter for investigation after an initial look found the communications to be of "a sufficient character" to warrant further review.
Gen Allen has denied that the two had a sexual relationship, officials said on condition of anonymity. Adultery can lead to a dishonourable discharge under US military law.
The scandal complicates President Barack Obama's efforts to reorganise his national security team following his re-election. The White House said it still had faith in Gen Allen, but acknowledged its plans to transfer him to Europe, where he would head US and allied forces, have been suspended.
Mr Obama also has to find a replacement for Gen Petraeus at the CIA at a time when the president is vetting candidates to head the state and defence departments.