As Vote Nears, Focus Is on Bolton's Actions
Thursday, May 12, 2005
The lengthy battle over the nomination of John R. Bolton to become U.N. ambassador has exposed long-suspected tensions at the highest levels of the State Department -- and between Bolton and the intelligence community -- during President Bush's first term.
Now, as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to vote on the nomination today, the question that has lingered is whether Bolton's actions were typical of the rough-and-tumble world of Washington policymaking today or crossed some unacceptable line. The answer tends to be colored somewhat by political persuasion -- though one of Bolton's fiercest critics, former assistant secretary of state Carl W. Ford Jr., is a Republican political appointee.
Indeed, Democrats have faced similar questions in the past with their nominees. Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), who three weeks ago forced a delay in a vote because he had concerns about Bolton's "interpersonal skills," noted that he slowed the approval of Richard C. Holbrooke, President Bill Clinton's nominee for the same post, because he heard Holbrooke was a "kind of nasty guy, arrogant and so forth."
The two main charges made by Democrats against Bolton, the undersecretary for arms control, is that he politicized and cherry-picked intelligence to support his policy objectives, and that he acted as a bully against subordinates who displeased him. Intelligence disputes were at the root of some of the conflicts, as Bolton on at least two occasions appears to have sought the reassignment of intelligence officials.
Many experts say that a tough and demanding style can be rather typical for high-level policymaking. Even Bolton's critics will acknowledge that he is highly intelligent and often effective at advancing his policy goals -- or blocking the objectives of others -- and even his supporters will acknowledge he has a gruff and blunt personality.
David Rothkopf, a senior Clinton administration official, said he found the attacks on Bolton for being a tough guy "a little bit disingenuous" because "policymaking in Washington can be a pretty rough game." Rothkopf, who recently published a history of the National Security Council titled "Running the World," said there are plenty of examples of sharp elbows in Washington, including former national security adviser Henry Kissinger allowing the FBI to wiretap his staff.
In his own experience in the Clinton administration, Rothkopf knew of one assistant secretary of state who made an obscene gesture at another assistant secretary during a State Department staff meeting over a perceived insult. "There are plenty of examples where people blew up at each other, where people stormed out of meetings, where people tried to undercut each other," he said.
In Bolton's case, the tension was particularly acute because he was often the odd man out in Colin L. Powell's State Department. Bolton pushed policies aggressively that were supported by some of State's bureaucratic rivals, such as the Defense Department, but were disliked inside State.
"It is clear that he made a lot of people unhappy in the State Department," said Richard R. Burt, who was at the center of several policy battles while a senior State Department official in Republican administrations. "He was a true believer. He was fighting the good fight against the forces of darkness as he saw it."
Bolton's style at times became an issue in the State Department. Larry Wilkerson, Powell's chief of staff, told investigators that all but one of the personnel complaints that came across his desk involved Bolton. He said that a stream of assistant secretaries or their deputies would come into his office and say they had to leave.
"What's the problem?" Wilkerson said he would ask. "Bolton" would be the answer, he said.
Senate Democrats have found several examples in which Bolton tried to transfer or discipline people in the bureaucracy who displeased him, but most were promoted. Powell, in fact, went to the intelligence bureau to cheer the troops after Bolton had a tough exchange with one analyst.
Several experienced policymakers said Bolton's efforts to transfer analysts because of intelligence disputes appeared unusual and possibly troubling. Bolton has maintained that he "lost confidence" in the analysts because they did not follow procedures, though other witnesses said intelligence conflicts were the core of the disputes.
Morton Abramowitz, who headed the State Department's intelligence bureau in the Reagan administration and held other top posts, said he knew of people who complained about analysts and sought a different briefer. He said it was "somewhat unusual" for Bolton to be so determined to do something about the conflict and seek to transfer an analyst.
Winston Lord, a top Clinton State Department official, said that based on what he had read in the newspapers, Bolton's actions against subordinates were "highly unusual" and went beyond the normal tussles over policymaking. Lord said that Bolton would have real credibility problems at the United Nations if he tried to present U.S. intelligence, because it appeared he had tried to manipulate intelligence to suit his policy objectives.
About assertions that Bolton tried to cherry-pick intelligence, Abramowitz said that most intelligence is so uncertain -- and there is such a range of intelligence assessments available in the government -- that it is relatively easy for policymakers to "pick the intelligence they like."
But Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic member of Congress who was vice chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, said some of the allegations against Bolton raise "the question of the politicization of intelligence." He said that Bolton's efforts to punish those who crossed him would "reverberate in the intelligence community" and could stymie debate.
Former deputy CIA director John E. McLaughlin told investigators that "it's perfectly all right" for a policymaker to disagree with an analyst and "challenge their work vigorously." But he said it was another level to request a transfer because of disagreements "unless there is malfeasance involved."
Ford said analysts in his bureau "were scared" of crossing Bolton. But investigators found only one analyst who expressed such fear -- he said after an encounter with Bolton he worried about stepping "on a land mine" with him in future dealings -- while several other witnesses said they shrugged off the pressure.