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Two generals, Agent Shirtless, and 30,000 pages of sexts

The scandal that keeps giving.

Two American generals have been implicated in allegations of sexual misconduct stemming from a bizarre FBI investigation into accusations of online harassment.

General David Petraeus, who ran America's war in Iraq, was forced to resign from his new posting at the CIA on Friday, and today, General John Allen, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, was also confirmed to be under investigation.

The allegations started with a string of emails received by Jill Kelley, a friend of Petraeus, last June. The emails, while angry in tone, did not apparently hint at any illegitimate activity, nor contain any threats; nonetheless, Kelley's local FBI office in Tampa, Florida, traced the source back to an anonymous gmail account operated by General Petraeus' (married) biographer, Paula Broadwell. Broadwell, according to officials quoted in the NYT, saw Kelley as a rival for her affections with Petraeus.

When the FBI identified the Gmail account as the source of the emails, it managed to receive detailed metadata from Google related to the running of the account – not just the times when the emails were sent, but locations, as well, allowed the FBI to get enough information to identify and then monitor Broadwell.

From there, the agents found that Broadwell and Petraeus "had set up private Gmail accounts to use for their communications, which included explicit details of a sexual nature", according to the Wall Street Journal.

That was the – already tortuous – state of affairs come Friday. Today, the scandal has branched out in a number of directions.

Firstly, General Allen has entered the picture. The FBI has apparently found "between 20,000 and 30,000 pages of 'potentially inappropriate' emails" sent between Allen and Jill Kelley, the recipient of the original angry missives allegedly sent by Broadwell.

Allen's conduct is now being investigated by the Pentagon's inspector general, with Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta in a statement praising General Allen for his leadership in Afghanistan and saying that “he is entitled to due process in this matter.”

Secondly, the conduct of the FBI has been called into question. Fears were already raised by the ease with which the FBI has acquired confidential data from Google over a case which, regardless of what it turned into down the line, showed little hint of illegality, let alone something worth subpoenaing private communications for.

One of the triggers for the investigation looks likely to be the fact that the angry emails, although anonymous, reflected "an inside knowledge" of Petraeus. "One e-mail accused Ms. Kelley of 'touching' Mr. Petraeus inappropriately under a dinner table," writes the NYT's Scott Shane and Charlie Savage.

But there is another element to the FBI's involvement. Shane and Savage continue:

[Kelley] brought her complaint to a rank-and-file agent she knew from a previous encounter with the F.B.I. office, the official also said. That agent, who had previously pursued a friendship with Ms. Kelley and had earlier sent her shirtless photographs of himself, was “just a conduit” for the complaint, he said. He had no training in cybercrime, was not part of the cyber squad handling the case and was never assigned to the investigation.

It seems doubtful that knowing one FBI agent (who, as the only player in the saga to remain anonymous, has been dubbed "Agent Shirtless) ought to be enough to get the Bureau involved in an investigation into angry emails, even if they do apparently mention General Petraeus.

As well as for the people involved, the affair has also had repercussions for the Obama administration. The resignation of Petraeus came just days before he was due to testify at a hearing over the Benghazi attack – which conspiracists have viewed as a way to take heat off the president – despite the fact that the FBI had known about the affair for over a year. The details of the leak are still being investigated, but it appears to have made its way into Congress via Representative David Reichert, a Republican from Washington state.

This affair just keeps getting weirder and weirder. Expect new revelations as America begins to wake up to the news later today.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Why is it getting harder to report on Israel-Palestine?

The politics of the conflict are changing – and with them, the diplomatic and journalistic challenge.

Throughout the centuries, Jerusalem’s Old City has drawn pilgrims, tourists, and conquerors. This week it has been the focus of renewed media attention after a series of violent incidents.  For those ties of history, politics, and faith which link it to the rest of the world have also made it a magnet for reporters: some admired, more abused or admonished.     

Last summer, Israel’s international image took a beating. Some two thousand Palestinians – the overwhelming majority of them civilians, according to the United Nations – were killed during the Israeli Army’s operation in Gaza. Israeli casualties – at more than 70, almost all of them military personnel – had been far higher than in other incursions into Gaza in recent years. 

As the dust settled above the flattened buildings, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, gave a news conference specifically aimed at the foreign press.

It was aimed at them in that they were both the audience, and the target. Mr Netanyahu said, “I expect, now that the members of the press are leaving Gaza, or some of them are leaving Gaza, and are no longer subjected to Hamas restrictions and intimidations, I expect we’ll see even more documentation of Hamas terrorists hiding behind the civilian population, exploiting civilian targets.”

The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz challenged Mr Netanyahu’s claim in a story headlined “Foreign Press: Hamas Didn't Censor Us in Gaza, They Were Nowhere to Be Found”. Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East Editor echoed this when we spoke for my new book, Headlines from the Holy Land. “They’re all hiding,” he remembered of his experience of Hamas during that that conflict. “They had a spokesman who hung out at Shifa hospital. And he was very much a spokesman. He didn’t tell us what to do.”

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been covered by countless words and hours of airtime. It has also exhausted extensive diplomatic resources seeking to solve it. The diplomatic desert seems almost to have led to a situation where PR is a substitute for policy. Take Mr Netanyahu’s attempts, above, to rubbish reporting. Earlier this year, the Israeli Foreign Ministry posted, and later removed, a cartoon sneering at, and patronising, the foreign press. Why bother with politics, when you can poke fun?

The politics, though, are changing – and with them, the diplomatic challenge.

Religion is playing a growing role. Daniel Kurtzer was United States ambassador to Tel Aviv 2001-2005. He was also there as a diplomat in the 1980s. Then, he remembers “a fostering of the idea of Islamism as an antidote to nationalism. The natural consequence of that was and has been the growth of religious feelings, so certainly on the Palestinian side that’s the case, but it’s even now grown on the Israeli side”. He concludes: “I haven’t seen any success yet in integrating this move towards religion into the diplomacy of trying to resolve the conflict. It’s a real challenge.”

It is a challenge for correspondents, too – and their efforts are rarely admired. Shortly before the bloodshed in Gaza began, the head of Israel’s government press office, Nitzan Chen, shared with me his opinion of foreign correspondents in Israel. “Like the Israeli journalists, they are cynical, critical. I don’t want to make generalisations because some people are very professional and very unique, see the facts before they write the story. But the majority are lazy.”

Anyone covering the conflict needs a thick skin, and sometimes more. In addition to the risks involved in covering all armed conflict, conversations with Palestinian journalists will often quickly uncover stories of harassment and threats of violence from armed groups. 

The brevity of daily news stories means they rarely have room for discussion of religion, or   competing historical narratives. Yet, for all its shortcomings, real and imagined, the journalism of the Israeli-Palestinian press is most people’s only source of information about a conflict which has connections to so many parts of the world. If it were not important, presumably the protagonists would not waste time criticising it.      

James Rodgers is the author of Headlines from the Holy Land: Reporting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, just published by Palgrave MacMillan. He was the BBC’s correspondent in Gaza from 2002-2004. James will be taking part in a panel discussion next week at City University London. You can register to attend here