(Reuters) - The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, is under investigation for alleged inappropriate communication with a woman at the center of the scandal involving former CIA Director David Petraeus, a senior U.S. defense official said on Tuesday.
The shocking revelation threatens to fell another of the U.S. military's biggest names and suggests that the scandal involving Petraeus - a former four-star general who had Allen's job in Afghanistan before moving to the CIA last year - could expand much further than previously imagined.
The U.S. official said the FBI uncovered between 20,000 and 30,000 pages of communications - mostly emails and spanning from 2010 to 2012 - between Allen and Jill Kelley, who has been identified as a long-time friend of the Petraeus family and a Tampa, Florida, volunteer social liaison with military families at MacDill Air Force Base.
It was Kelley's complaints about harassing emails from the woman with whom Petraeus had had an affair, Paula Broadwell, that prompted an FBI investigation, ultimately alerting authorities to Petraeus' involvement with Broadwell. Petraeus resigned from his job on Friday.
Asked whether there was concern about the disclosure of classified information, the official, on condition of anonymity, said: "We are concerned about inappropriate communications. We are not going to speculate as to what is contained in these documents."
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a statement given to reporters flying with him to Australia that he had asked that Allen's nomination to be Commander of U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe be delayed "and the president has agreed".
Allen, who is now in Washington, was due to face a Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday, as was his slated successor in Afghanistan, General Joseph Dunford.
The FBI referred the case to the Pentagon on Sunday and Panetta directed the Defense Department's Inspector General to handle the investigation. Panetta informed the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee during the flight to Australia. The House Armed Services Committee was also notified.
The U.S. defense official said that Allen denied any wrongdoing and that Panetta had opted to keep him in his job while the matter was under review, and until Dunford can be confirmed to replace him - a process that gains urgency given the potentially lengthy review process and the cloud it could cast over the mission in Afghanistan.
"While the matter is under investigation and before the facts are determined, General Allen will remain commander of ISAF," Panetta said, referring to the NATO—led force in Afghanistan.
Only hours earlier, Panetta had said he was reviewing Allen's recommendations on the future U.S. presence in Afghanistan after most troops withdraw by the end of 2014.
Commending Allen's leadership in Afghanistan, Panetta said in his statement: "He is entitled to due process in this matter."
At the same time, he noted that he wanted the Senate to act "promptly" on Dunford's nomination.
The U.S. official said Panetta was informed of the matter involving Allen on Sunday, as he flew to Hawaii, after the Pentagon's top lawyer called Panetta's chief of staff. The White House was informed next.
FBI RAID, SHIRTLESS PHOTOS
Evidence that the case involving Petraeus was not fully closed came late Monday when FBI agents searched the Charlotte, North Carolina house of Broadwell.
Agents entered the house carrying boxes at around 9 p.m. (0200 GMT Tuesday) and about four hours later took away what appeared to be two computers and about 10 boxes.
During the search, agents inside could be seen moving through multiple rooms, gathering materials and taking photos. They did not comment to reporters gathered outside the house.
Broadwell's family was not at home at the time of the raid. The FBI and a Justice Department official would not comment on the reason for the raid.