Robert D. Blackwill, who resigned last week as the White House's top official on Iraq policy, was recently scolded by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice after Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told her that Blackwill appeared to have verbally abused and physically hurt a female embassy staffer during a visit to Kuwait in September, administration officials said.
The incident took place as Blackwill was rushing to return home after a visit to Baghdad to join a campaign swing planned by President Bush. As six officials describe the incident, he arrived at the Air France counter at the Kuwait airport and learned he was not on the flight manifest. Blackwill then turned in fury to an embassy secretary who had accompanied him to the airport and demanded that he be given a seat on the flight, grabbing her arm at one point, the officials said.
Powell found out about the incident and informed Rice. He then had staff members gather facts and materials to present to Rice, including photographs of the woman's arm, a State Department official said.
A National Security Council spokesman confirmed that Blackwill's actions in Kuwait raised questions but said he could not comment on the details. He said the incident was not the reason Blackwill quit his job three months before Iraq is to hold its first elections. An official at the lobbying firm Blackwill just joined -- Barbour, Griffith and Rogers -- said yesterday that Blackwill was traveling to Europe.
"Ambassador Blackwill has served the country with great distinction, including in tense and dangerous situations in Iraq," the NSC spokesman said, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House. "The president and Dr. Rice hold Ambassador Blackwill in the highest regard, and the decision to leave was Ambassador Blackwill's own."
Another official, who is familiar with Blackwill's version of events, said that Blackwill believes the woman's description of the airport incident is not accurate and that another NSC staff member present during the incident supported Blackwill's version of it. The official did not elaborate.
Several officials noted that after the incident was reported, Blackwill traveled repeatedly with Bush on his campaign plane in the final weeks before the election. Blackwill, a deputy to Rice, was widely considered one of the top prospects to replace her as national security adviser if she took another job in the administration.
Instead, he abruptly left the administration and announced this week that he had joined Barbour, Griffith and Rogers.
The woman in question, who is married to a foreign service officer in Kuwait, did not file a formal complaint. But senior officials at the State Department took her concerns seriously.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage called her on Powell's behalf and expressed regret for the incident. Armitage then visited her and her husband during a recent trip to Kuwait to assure her that her concerns were being addressed, the State Department official said.
An administration official familiar with the discussions between Rice and Blackwill said that Rice interviewed Blackwill and NSC staff members present at the incident. The official said there were conflicting accounts about what happened but Rice was concerned enough that she took action to ensure that Blackwill dealt with his colleagues and subordinates appropriately. He declined to describe the actions Rice took, except to say Blackwill agreed with her decision.
Blackwill, who spent 22 years in the State Department's foreign service, is widely regarded as a brilliant and prickly boss with a management style that has struck some subordinates as abrasive. When he was ambassador to India early in the administration, he was the subject of two critical reports by the State Department inspector general on his management skills and plunging morale among the embassy staff.
Blackwill was Rice's mentor and boss when they served on the national security staff of President George H.W. Bush, handling European and Soviet affairs.