WASHINGTON – Paula Broadwell was a rising star who seemed destined for a sparkling career in foreign policy. A West Point graduate who excelled in triathlons, she was pursuing a doctorate at Harvard University and had found a mentor in Gen. David Petraeus, an iconic U.S. military leader.
But in 2007, Broadwell was asked to leave the doctoral program at Harvard, where she had first met Petraeus a year earlier, because her course work didn’t meet its demanding standards, according to people familiar with what happened there.
What Broadwell did next was a signature feature of her resilience and drive – and what detractors say is her tendency to overstate her credentials.
Broadwell, 40, eventually leveraged her unfinished dissertation into a best-selling biography of Petraeus, a project that gave her almost unlimited access to the general when he commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan and later when he was director of the CIA. That access also led to the extramarital affair that upended Petraeus’s career and shined a bright light on Broadwell’s.
A few months after leaving Harvard, Broadwell launched a full-bore effort to remake herself as a highly visible player in Washington’s insular foreign policy community. At the time, she and her husband, a radiologist, were raising toddlers and preparing to move to Charlotte, N.C., where he was setting up his practice.
In the summer of 2009, Broadwell told several prominent experts on counterinsurgency warfare that she had been asked by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the newly installed Afghan war commander, to assemble a team of first-tier academics and experts who would conduct an outside evaluation of McChrystal’s highly anticipated review of his war strategy.
She pressed experts in Washington and Cambridge, Mass., to join her review panel and lobbied senior U.S. military officials in Kabul to back her fledgling red team effort, military jargon for an outsider evaluation.
But senior military officials who were on McChrystal’s staff said Broadwell was not asked to spearhead an evaluation. The officials, who like others requested anonymity to speak freely about Broadwell and Petraeus, said her attempt to assemble a red team review panel was rejected after McChrystal’s aides decided that her experience, her connections and her academic credentials were too thin.
She was trying to pull together something way over her head, said Mark Jacobson, a former deputy NATO senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, who was approached by Broadwell to serve on the team. Jacobson said he admired Broadwell’s pluck. It was the kind of move you make in Washington when you are trying to make a name, he said.
Others who had been approached to serve in the group said they questioned her assurances that she had the backing of top military officials. In a 2010 interview on a website focused on leadership, Broadwell was still saying that McChrystal had asked her to assemble the leadership team.
Broadwell has not responded to email and phone messages since the scandal broke last week. Her lawyer, Robert Muse, did not respond to a request for comment on the specific information in this article.
Harvard declined to comment on Broadwell’s time there.
Broadwell eventually found her way to Afghanistan. In June 2010, President Obama removed McChrystal as commander over comments made by his aides to a reporter. The president turned to Petraeus to replace him.
Petraeus, 60, has told friends in recent days that he admired Broadwell’s combination of intellect and physical prowess, retired Col. Peter Mansoor said. She looks like a female version of him in some respects, Mansoor said.
Broadwell had stayed in touch with Petraeus as part of her research. She had visited him at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., where he served as Centcom commander before the assignment to Afghanistan.
When Petraeus moved to Kabul, she began making regular trips to the war zone. By then, she had decided to turn her academic research into a book about Petraeus and her access to him helped her win a six-figure book deal – and a way into the elite foreign-policy circles in Washington.
A spokesman at the military academy said Thursday that Broadwell did not win the fitness award, which went to another female cadet in her graduating class.
As Broadwell’s profile in Washington soared, she picked up many backers and won plaudits for her work raising money for charities that provided aid to wounded veterans.
She was a networker, a facilitator, a convener, said Jacobson, the NATO official who worked with her in Afghanistan and Washington. I think she is a good person who made a horrible mistake.