From Petraeus Scandal, an Apostle for Privacy

By Jennifer Steinhauer, The New York Times

TAMPA, Fla. — Jill Kelley still glances around for cameras before she leaves her large, six-columned house on Hillsborough Bay, and she rarely goes to the grocery store. Since November 2012, when the government released her name in connection with a scandal that brought down the head of the Central Intelligence Agency, Ms. Kelley has yet to return to her children’s schools, she said, and could not even summon the courage to go to their holiday plays.

Desperate to restore her reputation, resume her old life and, she said, protect others from similar ordeals, Ms. Kelley is, with the help of some of the nation’s most renowned and expensive privacy lawyers, suing three federal agencies and a spate of current and former Pentagon and F.B.I. officials. She asserts that they violated her privacy, defamed her and improperly gained access to her email without her consent, all in a way that hurt her reputation and livelihood.

Reclusion remains an uncomfortable cloak for Ms. Kelley, 38, who just over a year ago was the social spindle of MacDill Air Force Base here: a woman known for her lavish parties and connections with the top leaders of United States Central Command, which oversees American military operations in the Middle East. Commanders and their wives were regulars at her dining room table, where Champagne flowed under a huge oil painting of Ms. Kelley and her husband, Scott T. Kelley, a cancer surgeon.

“People don’t understand what I went through,” Ms. Kelley said in a recent interview, conducted in her breakfast room with breathtaking views of Hillsborough Bay. “I am still suffering the consequences from the bad acts and false and untrue headlines. They created a sideshow at my expense.” Her demeanor vacillated between cheerful, determined and pained; she occasionally wiped away tears.

In a lawsuit that is half legal document and half news release, Ms. Kelley seeks damages and a formal apology from the government for revealing her identity after she reported what she assumed was a crime: threatening emails sent by a woman with whom Gen. David H. Petraeus, then director of the C.I.A., was having an affair. The suit, filed in United States District Court for the District of Columbia, is also an attempt by Ms. Kelley to tell her side of a story that she says was distorted and dismissed, leaving her family as collateral damage.


Privacy lawyers said the outcome of the case would rest in part on whether the agencies involved were subject to exemptions under the Privacy Act of 1974, and on how the court interpreted arcane aspects of laws governing electronic records.

“They made a pretty good facial claim that the government violated the ‘no disclosure without consent’ rule,” said Paul M. Schwartz, director of the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.

The court will also examine whether Ms. Kelley suffered distress and loss of income.