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Senate Staff Interviews Show More Nuanced Image of Bolton

Ambassador-nominee John R. Bolton faces a Foreign Relations Committee vote on May 12.
Ambassador-nominee John R. Bolton faces a Foreign Relations Committee vote on May 12. (By Dennis Cook -- Associated Press)

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By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 4, 2005

The portrait of John R. Bolton that emerges from interviews conducted by Senate staffers is of a hard-charging official with strong opinions and little interest in accommodating views significantly different from his own -- who on occasion would freeze out or request transfers for officials who displeased him, according to a review of 10 transcripts obtained from officials involved in the investigation.

But while the investigation of Bolton's performance in President Bush's first term has turned up numerous examples of fierce policy disputes between the senior political appointee and lower-level career officials, no additional direct evidence of abusive behavior toward subordinates has emerged. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff is conducting dozens of interviews, seeking to discern a pattern in Bolton's behavior, as the panel prepares for a May 12 vote on Bolton's nomination to be ambassador to the United Nations.

Yesterday, the committee interviewed the former top legal adviser at the State Department, William H. Taft IV, and a department nonproliferation lawyer, Newell Highsmith, who clashed with Bolton over a lawsuit by an American company doing business with a Chinese company that had been sanctioned. Bolton did not want to deal with Highsmith during a pretrial conference call with a judge, but Highsmith ultimately remained on the case, committee aides said. Taft attributed the dispute to staff confusion.

Bolton, the undersecretary of state for arms control, was frequently at the center of debates over how tough a line to take against North Korea's nuclear ambitions, illicit proliferation trade and other issues. The full transcripts shed light on the intense skirmishing within the State Department bureaucracy over policy issues in the first George W. Bush administration, and also present a more nuanced portrait of these disputes and Bolton's role in them. Not all of the interviews have been transcribed, with some only summarized in dueling staff memos by Democratic and Republican aides.

One political appointee, former assistant secretary Carl W. Ford Jr., has testified that Bolton was a "kiss-up, kick-down kind of guy" who gave a "tongue-lashing" to an intelligence analyst who angered him for not following procedures in clearing speech language sought by Bolton. The analyst, Christian Westermann, told the committee that Bolton called him up to his office and "got very red in the face and [was] shaking his finger at me" over the dispute.

But none of those officials who angered Bolton were punished, and in fact they were often promoted, the interviews show. With the exception of the Westermann case, Bolton's complaints were directed at the officials' superiors, who either rejected Bolton's concerns or ran interference within the State Department.

Democratic aides say Bolton's failure to win support for his efforts to reassign lower-level officials demonstrates his lack of judgment. They say his actions may have had a chilling effect on the behavior of analysts and other aides, though they have not found evidence of that.

Alan Foley, a former head of the CIA's weapons proliferation center, told the committee that Bolton "was very complimentary of a lot of our analysts" but that there were regular disputes with Bolton or his staff over the meaning and use of intelligence.

"John strongly believed that just because the intelligence community had a conclusion on an issue, that didn't necessarily have to be his view," Foley said. "John felt he had every right to interpret what the evidence means and come to a different conclusion than the intelligence community."

Another official, Neil Silver of the State Department's intelligence bureau, said that Bolton sometimes appeared to view the bureau's role as "sort of a mailman," delivering messages without providing its own input.

Foley described the discussions as "a normal type of negotiation" with someone who relied on intelligence data, adding that "there were some guys in the Pentagon who were equally difficult to deal with."

John S. Wolf, a former assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, said Bolton "tended to hold on to his own views strongly and he tended not to be enthusiastic about alternative views." Wolf said Bolton "tended to have a fairly blunt manner of expressing himself" and that some people who worked for him "complained they felt undue pressure to conform to the views of the undersecretary."

But, in the end, Wolf said, "split memos" often were sent upstairs to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, with Bolton's office recommending one course of action and Wolf's office -- which reported to Bolton -- recommending a different option. Wolf also noted that in one case the legal adviser's office submitted an opinion that an option suggested by Bolton did not have a basis in law.

The disputes "nearly paralyzed the process while we were debating what the legal issues were, what the factual issues were," Wolf said, though he added that such debates extended beyond the State Department and across the administration.

Wolf said that Bolton on two occasions told him he wanted to transfer two officials who did not provide "diligent service," which Wolf said meant "he didn't agree with the views they were expressing." The issue in one case appears to center on timely processing of proliferation sanctions cases. But Wolf held his ground, saying he had confidence in the officials.

In another instance, Bolton refused to accept Wolf's recommendation in 2003 that a top aide, Rexon Ryu, be assigned to work closely with Bolton's office on an upcoming summit of the Group of Eight industrialized countries. Several months earlier, Bolton had accused Ryu of purposely not circulating to his office a memo on instructions to the U.N. delegation before the invasion of Iraq that had been sent to many other offices in the department.

Bolton, in fact, had summoned Ryu to his office when he learned of the memo, but Ryu first went to Wolf's office. Wolf decided that the failure to circulate the memo was inadvertent and ran interference with Bolton. After Bolton nixed Ryu's appointment, Ryu ended up working in the office of the deputy secretary of state, which Wolf called a "career-enhancing move."

Thomas Hubbard, a former ambassador to South Korea, described Bolton as someone who pushed the edges of U.S. policy toward North Korea, particularly in public. Hubbard had sought out the Foreign Relations Committee after Bolton testified that after a speech he gave in Seoul in July 2003, Hubbard told him the "speech had been helpful and done them some good."

Hubbard said he disliked the speech and requested changes in it -- which Bolton's staff accepted -- before Bolton delivered it. He told the committee that he was not accusing Bolton of being misleading, but that he actually said: "Thank you, John, for making those changes. They'll help us here in South Korea."


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