Among the new details that have emerged about David Petraeus' resignation: A whistle-blower with the FBI reached out to U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn.

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WASHINGTON — The collapse of the impressive career of CIA Director David Petraeus was triggered when a woman with whom he was having an affair sent threatening emails to another woman, according to three senior law-enforcement officials.

The recipient of the emails was so frightened that she went to the FBI for protection and help in tracking down the sender, according to the officials. The FBI investigation traced the threats to Paula Broadwell, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, an Army Reserve officer and a Petraeus biographer, and uncovered explicit emails between Broadwell and Petraeus, the officials said.

When Petraeus’ name surfaced, FBI investigators were concerned that the CIA director’s personal email account had been hacked and that national security had been threatened. The officials said further investigation, including FBI interviews with Broadwell and Petraeus, led to the discovery that the two were engaged in an affair.

The identity of the woman who received the emails was not disclosed, and the nature of her relationship with Petraeus is unknown. The officials said the woman did not work at the CIA and was not Petraeus’ wife, Holly. Attempts to reach Broadwell have been unsuccessful.

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All three senior officials who described the impetus for the investigation spoke on condition of anonymity.

Petraeus, 60, a retired four-star Army general who was once seen as a potential presidential candidate, said Friday he was resigning as CIA chief because he had been involved in an extramarital affair. He has been married for 38 years and has two grown children. Broadwell, 40, is married and has two young children.

Broadwell interviewed the general and his close associates intensively for more than a year to produce the biography, “All In: The Education of General David Petraeus,” which was written with Vernon Loeb, a Washington Post editor, and published in January. Since Petraeus’ resignation Friday, the book jumped from a ranking on Amazon of 76,792 on Friday to 83 by Saturday evening.

Details emerged Saturday indicating the Petraeus accusations became a secret election-night drama for the Obama administration. That evening, the Justice Department informed the director of national intelligence, James Clapper Jr., their investigation had unearthed compromising information about the CIA director, according to a senior U.S. intelligence official.

Clapper then spoke with Petraeus and urged him to resign, notifying the White House the next day. That sequence has become a source of controversy, raising questions among some members of Congress about why key intelligence committees were not notified earlier and why the FBI waited before informing the administration about an investigation involving the CIA chief.

The law-enforcement officials said the inquiry started several months ago.

According to The New York Times, Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, said Saturday an FBI employee whom his staff described as a whistle-blower told him about Mr. Petraeus’s affair and a possible security breach in late October.

“I was contacted by an FBI employee concerned that sensitive, classified information may have been compromised and made certain Director Mueller was aware of these serious allegations and the potential risk to our national security,” Cantor said in a statement.

Cantor talked to the person after being told by Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, that a whistle-blower wanted to speak to someone in the Congressional leadership about a national security concern. On Oct. 31, his chief of staff, Steve Stombres, called the FBI to tell them about the call.

In a statement sent to The Seattle Times on Sunday, Reichert’s spokeswoman declined to say whether the congressman spoke directly to the FBI employee, or why the person contacted Reichert or Reichert’s office. Reichert serves on the tax-writing House Ways & Means Committee. But he also is co-chair of the bipartisan House Law Enforcement Caucus, which focuses on issues affecting the law-enforcement community.

Law-enforcement officials said investigators thought they were dealing with a routine case until some communications were traced to the private email account belonging to Petraeus.

The sexually explicit nature of the communications caused investigators to suspect that someone had broken into Petraeus’ email account, leading to concerns about potential national-security breaches, according to the officials. As the investigation proceeded and more evidence emerged, including Broadwell’s role, FBI investigators realized they had uncovered an affair between Petraeus and Broadwell, the officials said.

The emails from Broadwell indicated that she thought the other woman was becoming involved with Petraeus, according to the officials. They said the emails were “threatening and harassing” but not specific enough to warrant criminal charges.

One of the officials said the recipient of the emails complained to Petraeus about them and the FBI later obtained emails between Petraeus and Broadwell in which they discussed the harassment.

The investigators first interviewed Petraeus about two weeks ago, the officials said.

One of the officials said Justice Department officials were unclear on what to do after they concluded there would be no charges against the CIA director or Broadwell and there had been no breach of national security.

“What was our responsibility?” said one of the officials. “We were in an area where we’d never been before.”

The notification came Tuesday evening, while polls were still open in an election that would return President Obama to office for four more years.

“Director Clapper learned of the situation from the FBI on Tuesday evening around 5 p.m.,” a senior U.S. intelligence official said. “In subsequent conversations with Director Petraeus, Director Clapper advised Director Petraeus to resign.” The official said Clapper has been fully briefed on the FBI investigation and has not called for his office or CIA to conduct a follow-up probe or damage assessment, indicating Clapper does not see the case as a security threat.

The official would not address why the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and others were not notified earlier of the FBI investigation and its link to Petraeus. The emerging details suggest Petraeus was not involved in the decision to notify the White House that he had been ensnared in an FBI probe. Instead, it was Clapper who told the White House late Wednesday.

A senior administration official defended the decision not to notify the president earlier, saying staffers “needed to get their arms around” the matter before briefing Obama, who had returned from his election trip to Chicago on Wednesday night.

Obama summoned Petraeus to the White House on Thursday and “made the decision alone overnight” to accept his CIA director’s resignation, the official said.

Friday morning, Obama notified his senior staff and made two calls, first to Petraeus and then to the man now serving as acting CIA director, Michael Morell.

White House and intelligence officials said again Saturday there was no connection between Petraeus’ resignation and the controversy surrounding the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, in September. Petraeus had been scheduled to testify this week about what the CIA knew, and what it told the White House, before, during and after the attacks. Morell, as acting director of the CIA, will testify instead.

The timing of Petraeus’ departure and the apparent decision by the FBI to withhold information about its inquiry are coming under question and criticism from Capitol Hill.

Senior Senate aides said the Senate Intelligence Committee did not learn of the matter until Friday, just hours before the Petraeus resignation was announced. Even then, the first word came from news reports.

By law, agencies are required to notify the committees of significant intelligence developments. Some questioned how an investigation that turned up compromising information about the CIA director did not qualify.

“This is a very personal matter, not a matter of intelligence,” the senior U.S. intelligence official said.

Seattle Times staff reporter Kyung M. Song reported from Washington, D.C. Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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