WASHINGTON -- Paula Broadwell was a rising star who seemed destined for a sparkling career in foreign policy. A West Point graduate who excelled in triathlons, she was pursuing a Harvard University doctorate and had found a mentor in Gen. David Petraeus, an iconic U.S. military leader.
But in 2007, Ms. Broadwell was asked to leave the doctoral program at Harvard, where she had first met the general a year earlier, because her course work didn't meet its demanding standards, according to people familiar with what happened there.
What Ms. Broadwell did next was a signature feature of her resilience and drive -- and what detractors say is her tendency to overstate her credentials.
Ms. Broadwell, 40, eventually leveraged her unfinished dissertation into a best-selling biography of Mr. Petraeus, a project that gave her almost unlimited access to the general when he commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan and later when he was CIA director. That access also led to the extramarital affair that upended Mr. Petraeus' career and shined a bright light on Ms. Broadwell's.
A few months after leaving Harvard, Ms. Broadwell launched a full-bore effort to remake herself as a highly visible player in Washington's insular foreign policy community. At the time, she and her radiologist husband were raising toddlers and preparing to move to Charlotte, N.C., where he was setting up his practice.
In the summer of 2009, Ms. Broadwell told several prominent experts on counterinsurgency warfare that she had been asked by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the newly installed Afghan war commander, to assemble a team of first-tier academics and experts who would conduct an outside evaluation of Gen. McChrystal's highly anticipated review of his war strategy.
She pressed experts in Washington and Cambridge, Mass., to join her review panel and lobbied senior U.S. military officials in Kabul to back her fledgling "red team" effort, military jargon for an outsider evaluation. The prospective team held a couple of meetings, according to one person involved.
But senior military officials on Gen. McChrystal's staff said Ms. Broadwell was not asked to spearhead an evaluation. The officials, who, like others, requested anonymity to speak freely about Ms. Broadwell and Mr. Petraeus, said her attempt to assemble a "red team" review panel was rejected after Gen. McChrystal's aides decided that her experience, connections and academic credentials were too thin.
"She was trying to pull together something way over her head," said Mark Jacobson, a former deputy NATO senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, who was approached by Ms. Broadwell to serve on the team. Mr. Jacobson said he admired Ms. Broadwell's pluck. "It was the kind of move you make in Washington when you are trying to make a name," he said.
Others approached to serve in the group said they questioned her assurances that she had the backing of top military officials. In a 2010 interview on a website focused on leadership, Ms. Broadwell was still saying Gen. McChrystal had asked her to assemble the leadership team.
Ms. Broadwell has not responded to email and phone messages since the scandal broke last week. Her lawyer, Robert Muse, did not respond to a request for comment on specific information for this article. Harvard declined to comment on Ms. Broadwell's time there.
Ms. Broadwell eventually found her way to Afghanistan. In June 2010, President Barack Obama removed Gen. McChrystal as commander over comments his aides made to a reporter. The president turned to then-Gen. Petraeus to replace him.
Mr. Petraeus, 60, has told friends in recent days that he admired Ms. Broadwell's "combination of intellect and physical prowess," said retired Col. Peter Mansoor. "She looks like a female version of him in some respects," Mr. Mansoor said.
When she was asked to leave Harvard's doctoral program, Ms. Broadwell finished a master's there in 2008 and picked up her doctoral studies at King's College London.
Ms. Broadwell had stayed in touch with Mr. Petraeus as part of her research. She had visited him at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., where he was Centcom commander before the Afghan assignment.
When Mr. Petraeus moved to Kabul, she began making regular war-zone trips. She wrote combat dispatches on the Foreign Policy website. By then, she had decided to turn her academic research into a book about Gen. Petraeus, and her access to him helped her win a six-figure book deal, and a way into elite Washington foreign policy circles.
She became a frequent TV guest and speaker at conferences sponsored by some of Washington's most prestigious foreign policy think tanks as an expert on counterinsurgency, Gen. Petraeus and the Afghan war.
"[Broadwell's] contribution was based on a close relationship with and close observation of Petraeus in Afghanistan. That was her currency and what drew the attention of the Washington policy community," said John Nagl, a Petraeus loyalist and former president of the Center for a New American Security. "It was a very unique story. ... She had begun to transcend the Petraeus relationship and was being sought out on her own as a smart, attractive and poised speaker."
"The level of access she got with the level of experience she had was exactly the sort of thing that makes people in Washington jealous," said Mr. Jacobson, the NATO deputy in Kabul. "She had an opportunity that many in Washington dream of. She was playing with the big boys and girls."