Previous 5th Fleet commanders had resisted various ploys by Bush administration hawks to threaten the Tehran regime. But in spring 2007, a new commander arrived with an ambitious program to show the Iranians who was boss in the Persian Gulf.
Vice Adm. Kevin J. Cosgriff had amassed an impressive résumé, rising through the ranks to command a cruiser and a warship group after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Following a customary path to three stars, he had also spent as much time in Washington as he had at sea, including stints at the Defense Intelligence Agency and as director of the Clinton White House Situation Room.
Cosgriff — backed by a powerful friend and boss, U.S. Central Command (Centcom) chief Adm. William J. “Fox” Fallon — was itching to push the Iranians, Todd and other present and former Navy officials say.
“There was a feeling that the Navy was back on its heels in dealing with Iran,” according to a Navy official prohibited from commenting in the media. “There was an intention to be far more aggressive with the Iranians, and a diminished concern about keeping Washington in the loop.”
Two people who were there said Cosgriff mused in a staff meeting one day that he’d like to steam a Navy frigate up the Shatt al Arab, the diplomatically sensitive and economically crucial waterway dividing Iraq and Iran. In another, they said, he wanted to convene a regional conference to push back Iran’s territorial claims in the waterway, a flash point for the bloody Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
Then he presented an idea that not only alarmed Todd, but eventually, she believes, launched the chain of events that would end her career.
Cosgriff declined to discuss any of these meetings on the record. This story includes information from a half-dozen Navy and other government officials who demanded anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, many parts of which remain classified.
According to Todd and another witness, Cosgriff’s idea, presented in a series of staff meetings, was to sail three “big decks,” as aircraft carriers are known, through the Strait of Hormuz — to put a virtual armada, unannounced, on Iran’s doorstep. No advance notice, even to Saudi Arabia and other gulf allies. Not only that, they said, Cosgriff ordered his staff to keep the State Department in the dark, too.
To Todd, it was like something straight out of “Seven Days in May,” the 1964 political thriller about a right-wing U.S. military coup. A retired senior naval officer familiar with Cosgriff’s thinking said the deployment plan was not intended to be provocative.
But Todd, in an account backed by another Navy official, said the admiral “was very, very clear that we were to tell him if there was any sign that Washington was aware of it and asking questions.”
For the past year, the air had been electric with reports of impending U.S. or Israeli attacks on Iran. If this maneuver were carried out, Todd and others feared, the Iranians would freak out. At the least, they’d cancel a critical diplomatic meeting coming up with U.S. officials. Todd suspected that was Cosgriff’s aim. She and others also speculated that Cosgriff wouldn’t propose such a brazen plan without Fallon’s support.
Retired Adm. David C. Nichols, deputy Centcom commander in 2007, recalled in an interview last year that Fallon “wanted to do a freedom-of-navigation exercise in what Iran calls its territorial waters that we hadn’t done in a long time.” Nothing wrong with that, per se, but the problem was that “we don’t understand Iran’s perception of what we’re doing, and we haven’t understood what they’re doing and why,” Nichols said. “It makes miscalculations possible.”
Todd feared that the Iranians would respond, possibly by launching fast-attack missile boats into the gulf or unleashing Hezbollah on Israel. Then anything could happen: a collision, a jittery exchange of gunfire — bad enough on its own, but also an incident that Washington hawks could seize on to justify an all-out response on Iran.
Preposterous? It had happened before, off North Vietnam in 1964. In the Tonkin Gulf incident, a Navy captain claimed a communist attack on his ship. President Lyndon Johnson swiftly ordered the bombing of North Vietnam, touching off a wider war that turned the country upside down and left more than 58,000 U.S. servicemen dead.
Don’t tell anybody? No way.
Todd picked up the phone and called a friend in Foggy Bottom. She had to get this thing stopped.
* * *
Gwenyth Todd was from a long line of American diplomats, bankers, spies and scholars going back to Revolutionary times. Her first 17 years had been spent following her father, Kenneth Thompson, a career diplomat, and mother, Eve Tyler, granddaughter of a renowned art collector, through embassies in Malta, Turkey, West Africa, England and Spain. Summers were spent at the family chateau in France, where the bloodline led back to Napoleon.
But Washington was home. Her maternal grandfather, William Royall Tyler, had been an assistant secretary of state in the Kennedy administration and director of Dumbarton Oaks, the estate and center for Byzantine and pre-Columbian art studies. The estate’s original owners, Robert and Mildred Bliss, were intimate friends of her family. “When we weren’t overseas, I spent much of my time as a child playing in the gardens,” Todd said during one of several interviews in the past year.
She graduated Phi Beta Kappa in Near and Middle Eastern studies from the University of California at Berkeley, then earned a master’s in Arabic and international affairs in 1990 at Georgetown University.
Bright, brash, tall and sexy — she had modeling jobs between Berkeley and Georgetown — she seemed destined for a promising career. But she also revealed an early penchant for intrigue. She recounts how, studying Arabic in Syria in 1989, she had drawn the attention of the secret police, who suspected her of being an American spy, apparently because of her romance with a dashing young U.S. Army officer, Maurice “Lin” Todd, attached to the U.N. mission in Damascus. Tipped by a Syrian student that her arrest was imminent, she said her boyfriend suggested they marry immediately so she could escape with diplomatic immunity as a spouse of a member of the U.N. mission. The marriage lasted only six years, “a huge disappointment,” she said.
From there on, her life would seem to unfold as if it were an episode of “Alias” or “Covert Affairs.” One time, “I hired a car and driver and drove across the Sinai from Cairo to the Israeli border, with Abba blaring on the stereo and feeling rather like Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” she recalled. Destination: Eliat, on the Red Sea. Mission: scuba diving.
Conversant in French, Spanish, Turkish and Arabic, Todd quickly won a White House internship and a job at the U.S. Army Security Assistance Command in Alexandria. Her job involved squiring senior foreign military officers around town.
Right away, remembered her boss, Linda Baish, then chief of USASAC’s Pacific Division, Todd was fearless about standing up to overbearing men.
“I was very impressed with her,” Baish said. “She was, I thought, the kind of person who should be representing the U.S. government.”
In 1991, Todd, 27, quickly won a transfer to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, where she gained her first top-secret security clearance and became the desk officer for Iraq, Kuwait and Oman. In charge of analyzing regional events, in particular the effectiveness of economic sanctions against Saddam Hussein, Todd found herself rubbing elbows with Pentagon neoconservatives who she says were already conspiring with Iraqi exiles to replace the dictator a dozen years before the invasion of Iraq. She believed overthrowing Hussein and his fellow Sunnis, implacable enemies of Iran, would be a strategic blunder.
With Bill Clinton’s election victory in 1992, Todd became desk officer for Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. It was a lively time, with covert U.S. involvement in operations to liquidate Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug kingpin, and Abimael Guzman, leader of Peru’s Shining Path revolutionaries.
Two years later, she was back on more familiar turf, as Pentagon desk officer for Turkey, Spain and Cyprus. Clearly on a fast track, she was appointed special assistant to Walter Slocombe, undersecretary of defense for policy. For her work there, she received the department’s Distinguished Civilian Service Award. And in 1997, she got the brass ring: transfer to the White House National Security Council.
“Very heady stuff,” she remembered. But she was now also involved in another high-voltage relationship.
* * *
Tall, slim and extremely well informed in the ways of Washington, Robert Cabelly had been an Africa expert in three administrations by the time he encountered Gwenyth Todd at Pesce, the fashionable Dupont Circle seafood bistro. Now, in 1995, he was about to turn his inside connections into K Street gold as a lobbyist for oil-rich African regimes.
Todd, little more than half Cabelly’s age, was attracted to high-powered men who shared her interests. Still hurting from the end of her marriage, however, she wasn’t open to romance. But two years later, “under the impression that he was separated from his wife,” Todd said, “we began a tempestuous relationship.” In 2000, she learned that she was pregnant — and that Cabelly had no intention of divorce, she said.
(Cabelly referred questions about Todd to his Washington lawyer, Aitan Goelman, who declined to comment for the record.)
By then, Todd had left the White House. She was disenchanted with the administration and wanted to make more money to provide her daughter with advantages she had enjoyed as a child.
She took a consulting job with Global Crossing, a partner of the Houston-based Enron energy conglomerate. When Global, like Enron, went belly up a year later, she was a 37-year-old unemployed single mother of an infant.
Cabelly stepped forward.
“Robert had a vested interest in making sure I got a decent job, because I was raising [our daughter],” Todd said. “Robert’s business partner helped me set up my own company,” the consulting firm G.E.T. LLC, in Rockville. Her first client was Nuri Colakoglu, a Turkish steel and shipping magnate.
Unknown to Cabelly, she says, she began an affair with Colakoglu, who showered her with jewels and spun her around the Mediterranean on his yacht. And unknown to her, she says, Cabelly was getting into business with some of Africa’s worst despots, including Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan, listed by the State Department as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Cabelly never confided the particulars with her, Todd said. “The most detail I ever heard was that Bashir wears cheap, fussy leopard-print slippers,” she said. “But [Cabelly] was always stepping out of the room with his mobile to talk to high-level U.S. officials.”
Cabelly seemed to be providing an unofficial back channel to Sudan, she said.
Then one day in January 2005 she got an intriguing offer from Adm. David Nichols, commander of the 5th Fleet: Come to Manama, Bahrain, as a political adviser, on contract — you can keep your other clients. They had conferred twice the previous year, when Todd stopped in Bahrain during a business trip.
“I was immediately impressed by the sharpness of her mind and the incisiveness of her comments on Middle East strategic issues,” Nichols would write years later, in a glowing recommendation of her work.
The job went well for two years, until Cosgriff showed up.
* * *
Nichols and his seccessor as 5th Fleet commander, Adm. Patrick Walsh, had been determined to avoid rhetoric or maneuvers that could lead to an unintended clash with Iran. In one instance, Todd recalled, commanders in Bahrain had used her to leak one inflammatory plan from Washington to Time magazine. It was derailed.
But Cosgriff seemed as eager as the Bush administration hawks to mix it up with the Iranians.
When Cosgriff instructed Todd and other staff not to tell the State Department about his plan to marshal the big decks (two aircraft carriers, an amphibious helicopter assault carrier and five supporting warships) that May in 2007, Todd said, it was just too much. She immediately called a family friend at the State Department’s Iran desk. Her contact alerted superiors, according to sources familiar with events, and Cosgriff was told to stand down, at least until the critical conference with the Iranians was over. He was also told to notify the Saudis and other gulf allies before resuming the maneuver.
The armada passed through the strait a week later, on May 23, without incident. Likewise, in Baghdad, Iranian and American diplomats met as scheduled.
Cosgriff was furious about “the [expletive] storm” coming down on him from Washington because of the leak, according to Todd and another staff member.
Cosgriff declined to comment for the record, but a retired senior naval officer said Cosgriff “was collaborating with ... Adm. Fallon” and had “taken a little heat. ... It was a ‘lessons learned’ thing — you gotta notify people.”
Administration officials privy to the affair, meanwhile, said they were surprised when Fallon portrayed himself, in a much-talked-about 2008 Esquire interview, as nearly single-handedly stopping Bush administration hawks from starting a war with Iran. Because of the uproar over the article, he resigned shortly after.
As for the big-decks conspiracy scenario presented by Todd and others, Fallon called it “B.S.” in an e-mail, but declined to answer further questions.
* * *
Todd was relieved. The big-decks surprise had been defused, and Cosgriff didn’t seem to suspect her of leaking the plan.
Then another emergency popped up, this one personal. Two FBI agents showed up in Bahrain with questions about her, Cabelly and Sudan. They told her Cabelly’s business dealings with the regime, prohibited by trade sanctions, were under investigation. Todd was surprised. Cabelly had been granted an exemption in 2005, and she assumed U.S. officials were using him as a back channel to the regime.
After an outcry by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), Cabelly had dropped his $530,000 annual contract with Sudan to provide PR advice to its embassy in Washington. The government believed he had quietly pursued other business in Sudan, notably oil and aircraft deals.
Todd said she told the agents she had as little to do with Cabelly as possible, outside of child support. She was now romantically involved with Capt. Charles Huxtable, a handsome Royal Australian Navy captain who was a liaison officer to the 5th Fleet.
“I was not helping Robert re Sudan,” Todd said in a recent e-mail. “I thought (and still do) that Robert was working on behalf of the USG.” Fifth Fleet commander Walsh, for one, met with Cabelly when he came to Bahrain.
Todd opened her house, as well as her computers, to the FBI agents, she said. They talked for hours. The FBI agents wanted to know about $30,000 Cabelly had given her. She said she explained that it was for emergency surgery — Bahrain hospitals demanded upfront cash guarantees from foreigners — but that she had returned it, because Colakoglu, her Turkish client, had stepped in to help her first.
She had nothing to hide, she told the agents as they departed with her computers. When they left, they presented her with a summons to appear before a grand jury in Washington.
She hired a lawyer.
* * *
Months passed. Todd heard nothing more from the FBI. But at work, she believed Cosgriff started freezing her out.
Then, on Dec. 13, 2007, he summoned her to his office. An intelligence report had come in about a possible Iran-backed attack on U.S. personnel in Bahrain. The report, which she guessed originated with the local CIA station, said the attacks were to be led by Bahrain’s top Shiite religious figure, Isa Qassim.
Todd thought the report was fishy. Although Bahrain’s Shiites did oppose the U.S.-backed Sunni monarchy, they’re Arabs, eternal enemies of the Persian Iranians. And Qassim himself, it happened, had warned Todd just the previous day that anti-monarchy demonstrators might attack places frequented by U.S. personnel.
The report “looked like a fabrication by someone trying to kill two birds with one stone, by making the Bahraini Shia appear to be anti-U.S. terrorists who also happened to be taking orders from Iran,” Todd said. “I knew, really knew, that the Bahraini Shia were trying to ensure U.S. personnel were nowhere near the possible violence.” She suspected the intelligence report was cooked up by Bush administration hawks.
Cosgriff “asked me if I could go out and verify the information at the source — an informant in Dirza, a Shia village — saying that he realized it was dangerous,” Todd said.
Cosgriff declined to answer questions for the record about his meeting with Todd; a retired senior naval officer familiar with his thinking said he did not issue an order.
Todd’s boss, Martin Adams, recalled the event. “I saw the incoming report,” Adams said. “Someone — I do not remember who, but it was a junior officer — brought it to the office I shared with Gwenyth and showed it to her and to me. Subsequently, Gwenyth got a call, asking her to go down and see Cosgriff — an unusual event in itself. When she returned, she said she had to work that evening, as Cosgriff had asked her to go out to confirm the information in the report.”
But first, they called Cmdr. Carl Inman, the assistant Fleet N2, or intelligence officer. “He was very surprised Cosgriff had called me, not him,” Todd said. Inman said he could not recall that.
According to Todd and Adams, however, the three decided that going at night to Diraz, a restive Shiite area seven miles north of Manama, was too dangerous. Instead, she’d try a foreign businessman in town who had good contacts among leading Shiites.
That night, she met at a Manama restaurant with the businessman and a Shiite dissident, a man the CIA station chief had once warned her was a “terrorist” but who she was confident was not. It soon became clear they were being watched by Bahraini security men, she said.
The dissident batted away the report. The last thing the Bahraini Shiites wanted, he said, was to antagonize the Americans. But violence definitely could erupt between protesters and security forces, he said. U.S. personnel should steer clear.
Todd returned to the base at 10:30, but at the gate, her security badges didn’t work. A glitch, she thought. She talked the guard into letting her in and wrote up a warning report.
At 2 a.m., Inman came in. “This is important,” she remembered him saying. “It has to go out now.”
Inman did recall that “we then made sure the right people had her information, her observations and her analysis.”
Exhausted, Todd walked out of her office — for the last time, it turned out.
At 7:30 the next morning, her badge still wasn’t working. Again she wangled her way past a guard. An “agitated” Inman appeared.
Go home, he said. “The front office is very upset.” He couldn’t say more.
“Freaking out,” Todd went to a nearby Starbucks. She called Cosgriff, but got shunted to an adjutant, who told her: “You have to come in for an explanation.”
Now wary, Todd refused.
The next day, her computer access was shut down. The day after that, Cosgriff’s chief of staff called to demand she come in to turn in her badges. Instead, she gave them to Adams for delivery.
Then came a stunning revelation: Todd said she learned from a friend that her access had been suspended the same day Cosgriff had dispatched her into the night to verify the threat report.
What? Todd said she felt the room spin. Cosgriff had given her a sensitive assignment — to meet a suspect Shiite — after her clearances had been suspended? It didn’t make sense.
Ten days later, on Christmas Eve, her contract was abruptly terminated without explanation. Stripped of clearances, she was not only out of a job, it appeared, but finished altogether, her career in tatters.
* * *
As the holidays passed, she gloomily assessed her prospects. Huxtable, her Australian navy captain, presented her with an escape plan: Go to Perth, his next duty assignment. Get a house for us. Wait for me there.
She gathered up her daughter and fled. While she appealed to the Navy for an explanation, she solicited recommendations from old colleagues, hoping she might find work again, somehow, in foreign policy. Many stepped forward.
Adm. John W. Miller, now 5th Fleet commander, called her judgments “sound and invariably on the mark.”
Todd’s departure from Bahrain was “a serious loss,” Inman wrote. “Her appraisals of events are almost uncanny in their accuracy.”
Huxtable finally arrived from Bahrain, and she busied herself in wildlife restoration at a national park, helping rescue injured kangaroos.
Then, events in Bahrain caught up with her. On Feb. 27, 2008, a letter from Cosgriff’s chief of staff, Capt. Joe Sensi, arrived via “unregistered snail mail.” It was dated Dec. 13, 2007, the day of her strange intelligence mission. For the first time, she read that her contract had been terminated because of “unreported foreign contacts ... financial irresponsibility ... [and] the disclosure of classified information to unauthorized persons.”
Todd shot back a six-page response, demanding a “detailed substantiation.”
“I have no unreported foreign contacts,” she said in the letter. “On the contrary, every contact of interest I have come across during my time at [Naval Forces Central Command] I have factored into my reporting to the Command.” She referred to several, including “the meetings I knew Mr. Cabelly had arranged between Sudanese and Bahraini businessmen.”
Next: “If there were concerns about my finances, they were never brought to my attention.”
Next: “I have not knowingly disclosed classified information to any unauthorized person.” Her clearances routinely had been renewed.
Finally, Todd demanded “a full explanation” of why the Navy had violated personnel rules in canceling her clearances without notice or a chance to appeal.
The Navy’s response: “As ... the manual states, commanding officers will suspend individual access to classified material as warranted.”
* * *
Her first year of exile passed slowly in Perth. On March 29, 2009, “in a lovely ceremony on a bright sunny day in the garden of our landlady,” she and Huxtable exchanged vows. They moved to Canberra, where her husband took a new post.
Things seemed to have died down at last. But on Oct. 27, 2009, the Justice Department unsealed its indictment of Robert Cabelly. According to the indictment, he had violated sanctions on Sudan, as well as engaged in money laundering, passport fraud and making false statements. Cabelly entered a plea of not guilty to all counts.
And to her alarm, Todd discovered she had been included as an unnamed, unindicted co-conspirator. Her lawyer warned her not to step on American soil until things were resolved.
Then came the oddest incident of all, according to Todd.
One night in February 2011, Todd said, she was preparing dinner when the doorbell rang.
On the doorstep was a man who introduced himself as “Bill Phelps, a consular officer from the American Embassy.”
He explained to Todd and her husband that Chinese hackers had been compromising U.S. passports, and he was warning ex-pat Americans about it. He was at the H’s. Could he see her papers, please?
“Mine begins with T,” she said. “My name is Todd.” She nodded at her husband, Charles. “He’s an H.”
The man appeared flustered. “Oh, wait, let me think,” she recalled him saying. “R, S, T. ... Oh, yeah, T’s were compromised, too.”
Todd said she “smelled a rat ... somebody connected with U.S. intelligence.” Huxtable was incensed. They told the man to leave.
Sure enough, “Phelps” returned the next day and confessed.
“I lied — I’m with the FBI, and we want to talk to you,” Todd recalled him saying. He wanted her to come to the embassy for a video conference with Washington officials to discuss her relationship with Cabelly. The FBI did not respond to requests to confirm Todd’s account, which she first provided to Australian television immediately after the incident.
It had been a comically clumsy ruse, but Todd wasn’t laughing. Neither was Huxtable, who alerted his superiors that the FBI was evidently conducting some kind of “rogue investigation” in Australia, an egregious violation of protocol.
Todd asked the agent whether he could guarantee her immunity if she came to the embassy. No, he said. Forget it then, she replied.
She called her lawyer in Washington. He made a few inquiries and told her that she had been dropped from the indictment months before: There had been a misunderstanding about the cash Cabelly had brought her in 2006 for the emergency surgery, she said.
* * *
Todd understands her story sounds improbable. Indeed, she spends at least part of every day spinning various conspiracy theories through her mind.
For a long while, she admits, “I thought I was perhaps being paranoid.” But when the mysterious FBI agent showed up, she decided somebody really was out to get her.
The question was who — or who first?
She wondered if maybe the whole Bahrain catastrophe came down to the FBI trying to pressure her to give up information they thought she had on Cabelly.
On the other hand, she thought it curious that the FBI man had showed up only days after she had been quoted in the New York Times harshly criticizing the Bush administration’s Bahrain policy, which was “consciously ignoring at best the situation of Bahraini Shiites.”
Was somebody in Washington still smarting over her Dec. 13, 2007, refutation of its intelligence report linking Shiite protesters to Iran?
Or was hers a classic Washington tale of a strong woman slapped down for standing up to powerful men? “Sisterhood” wasn’t a word that came easily to Todd’s lips, but now she felt a kinship to Valerie Plame, the CIA operative outed by Bush officials because her diplomat husband challenged their case for invading Iraq.
Todd swings from theory to theory.
“If you want my opinion, I am 100 percent convinced that this is about my thwarting plans to provoke war with Iran,” Todd said at one point.
One former official familiar with the events in Bahrain agreed. “She got on the wrong side of some powerful people,” he said on condition of anonymity in exchange for discussing anything about the case.
The Justice Department will not discuss anything about the Cabelly case. The FBI did not respond to requests to discuss the Australia incident, Todd or Cabelly.
Cabelly’s travails, however, may be reaching closure. A sentencing hearing, scheduled for June, was postponed, under seal.
* * *
Eighteen months later, Todd is still afraid to come home, lest the Cabelly case pop up and bite her again. Her parents have visited from Vermont, where they are retired, on a few holidays. Once in 2008 they gathered in Toronto, where she was meeting her lawyers.
At 47, she’s no longer a high-level player in big-think Middle East strategy (though, judging by her e-mail exchanges with past and present senior officers, Navy leaders still welcome her advice). She worries: The drumbeat for a military attack on Iran, she says, is being pounded “by the same people who gave us Iraq.”
“What happened to Gwenyth in Bahrain was shocking,” said her father, Kenneth Thompson, “but having spent much of my working life in the State Department, I know that such things are possible. The only way to curb such abuses of power is to make the facts public.”
Her continued inquiries to the Navy have been bounced from office to office. She complained to the Navy’s Inspector General Hotline, which responded that it “will neither confirm, nor deny, receipt of your Hotline complaint via email of 28 Feb 2008.”
After a Freedom of Information Act request, the Navy Central Command said it has no records of Cosgriff and Fallon discussing a plan to move the big decks, no records of the intelligence report on Shia unrest, no warning report by Todd and Inman on Dec. 14, and no “records related to the revocation of Ms. Todd’s security clearance.”
The Defense Security Service indicated that the Naval Criminal Investigative Service had a classified file on her; NCIS says it is working on a FOIA response.
In desperation in February 2011, Todd wrote to two high-ranking Navy officers, including Miller, who had provided her such a glowing recommendation in 2009.
“Can either of you help me?” Todd beseeched. “I do not want to cause more damage, but this whole situation is un-American. I just want to know the facts, and then I will shut up.”
Miller, who assumed command of the 5th Fleet this year, told her he would look into it. She is certain he will. As of press time, however, help has yet to come.
Jeff Stein, The Post’s former SpyTalk blogger, is a longtime Washington reporter and editor. To comment on this story, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.