By Phil Stewart
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Thursday he knew of no other military officials beyond the top commander in Afghanistan drawn into the investigation surrounding former CIA Director and retired four-star general David Petraeus.
Panetta, on a visit to Thailand, acknowledged that further revelations were possible in the case. But his comments suggested that, at least for now, questions about email traffic with a Florida socialite had ensnared no other officers.
"I am not aware of any others that could be involved in this issue at the present time," Panetta told reporters.
"Obviously as this matter continues to be investigated, both on Capitol Hill and by the inspector general, I'm sure that we'll have to wait and see what additional factors are brought to our attention."
Marine General John Allen, who remains in his post as commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, is being investigated for potentially inappropriate communications with a woman at the center of the Petraeus case, Jill Kelley, a Florida socialite.
Kelley may have been seen as a rival by Petraeus' biographer, Paula Broadwell, who sent Kelley anonymous, harassing emails which touched off an investigation that uncovered evidence of an affair between Petraeus and Broadwell. It also led investigators to examine her emails to Allen.
Allen and Kelley communicated often enough over the past two years to produce 20,000 to 30,000 pages of email and other messages, which were turned over to Defense Department investigators on Sunday.
A senior defense official has told Reuters the messages with Kelley were seen as inappropriate because they were "flirtatious" in nature, not because they dealt with sensitive information.
Asked whether the emails were sexually explicit, Panetta declined comment, saying: "What I don't want to do is to try to characterize those communications."
"Because I think I don't want to do anything that would impact on their ability to conduct an objective review of what was contained in those emails," he said.
In a statement late Wednesday issued by the Marine Corps' chief defense counsel, Allen pledged to resolve the questions surrounding his email communications with Kelley, who is also at the center of the Petraeus case.
"To the extent there are questions about certain communications by General Allen, he shares in the desire to resolve those questions as completely and quickly as possible," Colonel John G. Baker said.
PROMINENT PRESENCE IN MILITARY CIRCLES
Kelley, a 37-year-old wife and mother, is described as a prominent presence in military circles in Tampa. She had come to know both Petraeus and Allen as a volunteer setting up social events at MacDill Air Force Base outside Tampa, headquarters of U.S. Central Command.
Defense officials have said Allen did not have a romantic relationship with Kelley. But the relationship was evidently close enough that both men intervened in a child custody battle involving Kelley's twin sister, Natalie Khawam.
"I have tremendous confidence in General Allen, certainly his ability, his leadership --- and I don't think anybody ought to jump to any conclusions as to where any of this will lead," Panetta said.
General Martin Dempsey, the top U.S. military officer, also expressed confidence in Allen's leadership and was quoted Thursday in a Defense Department news article as saying he hoped the investigation would not derail Allen's nomination to the military's senior post in Europe.
His nomination was suspended to allow for the investigation to proceed.
"We have John Allen scheduled to become the (European Command) commander, and I wouldn't want him to miss that opportunity unless there is reason for that to happen," Dempsey told a reporter with the Pentagon's American Forces Press Service.
"I don't see that at this point, but I see this investigation and how long it could take affecting that."
Dempsey said he asked Allen whether he could carry on despite "this additional stress in his life."
"He assured me that he was ready, willing and able to continue in command, and I absolutely have confidence in his ability to do that," Dempsey was quoted saying.
(Editing by Ron Popeski)