What ensued over the next 72 hours not only overtook all attempts for a happy family celebration but also made us prisoners in our own home. Our lives were radically upended by the story that emerged after David Petraeus resigned as CIA director. Our names were leaked as that story developed, and we were unable to attend Sunday Mass, see our daughter’s Christmas play or otherwise move about without the invasive lenses of paparazzi exposing our private family life for public consumption.
Ours is a story of how the simple act of quietly appealing to legal authorities for advice on how to stop anonymous, harassing e-mails can result in a victim being re-victimized. The word “victim” is, we know, better reserved for those who have suffered far worse than we pray we’ll ever experience. But the reality is that we sought protection, not attention, and received the inverse.
After our names were linked to the Petraeus story, a horde of paparazzi stormed our front lawn. Our young daughters were terrified. We didn’t want our silence to validate false headlines, but we did what most people unaccustomed to such a blitzkrieg would do: walled it off in the hopes the storm would fade or pass.
But it didn’t go away. And the media filled our silence with innuendo and falsehoods. The junk reporting of financial problems and romantic insinuations was emotionally exhausting and damaging – as it would be to the strongest of families.
Our family committed no crime and sought no publicity. We simply appealed for help after receiving anonymous e-mails with threats of blackmail and extortion. When the harassment escalated to acts of cyberstalking in the early fall, we were, naturally, terrified for the safety of our daughters and ourselves. Consequently, we did what Americans are taught to do in dangerous situations: sought the help of law enforcement.
Unfortunately, reaching out to an FBI agent whose acquaintance we had made resulted in slanderous allegations. We had never met, nor even knew of, Paula Broadwell when we sought protection. Our experience of having our privacy invaded and our lives turned upside down by authorities leaking our names and the existence of private electronic correspondence highlights the need for measures that ensure citizens retain their privacy when they seek assistance and protection from law enforcement and that the names of those who report a crime are not made public.
The breach of civil liberties we experienced never needed to happen. That is why, as Congress considers the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, lawmakers should consider what access to and disclosure of private e-mails of law-abiding citizens will be allowed, and what safeguards should be in place.
Our story stands as a cautionary tale. We have experienced how careless handling of our information by law enforcement and irresponsible news headlines endanger citizens’ privacy. We know our lives will never be the same, and we want to prevent others from having their privacy invaded merely for reporting abusive, potentially criminal, behavior.