The real lesson from the Pentagon sex scandal: Your email, your liability

Once again, smoking gun emails take down the high and mighty. The scariest part? How easy it was to do it

Bullets shatter bones, knives cut flesh, napalm burns, bombs explode. But nothing can hurt you quite the way email can, long after the smoke has cleared.

That's one of the key lessons of the Petraeus sex scandal (aka the Love Pentagon) playing out across the InterWebs. Despite the bizarre twists and turns the story has taken, it also reveals a more troubling truth about our modern surveillance society.

[ In case you're not feeling exposed enough already, check out what other details Cringely lays bare in "What's in a vote? Only your entire personal profile." | For a humorous take on the tech industry's shenanigans, subscribe to Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. | Get the latest insight on the tech news that matters from InfoWorld's Tech Watch blog. ]

But first, the soap opera. This story has gone from tragic to comically surreal in a matter of days. If you haven't been paying attention -- and really, you ought to be paying attention, it's just too good to ignore -- here's a quick summary of what we think we know so far.

Last May, Florida socialite and unofficial military liaison Jill Kelley received a series of anonymous threatening emails. According to an unnamed source who talked to the Daily Beast, these emails were less "I'm going to kill you" and more "Stop acting like such a skanky ho."

Kelley calls up a pal of hers at the local FBI office and asks him to investigate. FBI guy starts digging through the emails and figures out that the anonymous sender is Paula Broadwell, national security analyst and co-author of a biography of General Petraeus. He then finds her real email account and discovers she's been engaged in, um, nonmilitary maneuvers with Petraeus over a period of several months. The feds confront Broadwell and Petraeus, who both cop to the affair and quietly end it.

Digging through Kelley's email account, the feds also discover 20,000 to 30,000 pages of "inappropriate messages" between Kelley and General John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. We still don't know what's in those messages, but I'm sure we're all dying to find out.

Somewhere along the line, the original FBI agent sends shirtless photos of himself to Kelley. (As the Philadelphia Inquirer's Monica Kinney tweeted, it could have been worse -- at least he didn't send her photos of his manhood.) Shirtless fed is quickly removed from the case for becoming "personally involved" and is now under investigation, per the Wall Street Journal. Nonetheless, believing the investigation is being stonewalled to protect the president, in late October topless G-man spills what he knows to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

Oh yeah: Kelley has a troubled twin sister who once enlisted Petraeus' help in a custody battle, which she ultimately lost. Have I missed anything?

It's like "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" meets "Gomer Pyle." Or maybe it's an adult movie with the shirtless FBI agent playing the role of the pizza delivery guy. As Gawker's Max Read put it, "The story has shifted from John Le Carré espionage novel to Vince Flynn right-wing thriller to misanthropic Coen Brothers farce."

Now, cue the Internet.

Gawker has conjured up a helpful flowchart that shows all the players -- so far -- and how they relate to each other.

The New Yorker's Andy Borowitz reports that the CIA has prepared a helpful guide for determining whether you are involved in the Pentagon sex scandal and don't know it yet. (Hint: If your name showed up in Gawker's flowchart, you probably are.)

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