By Steven Levingston
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 16, 2010; C03
Michael Mewshaw did a dangerous and perhaps foolhardy thing for his 65th birthday: He embarked on a 4,000-mile overland journey through the terrorist-ridden lands of North Africa. But now that his firsthand account has hit the bookstores, he says his roughest experience has come at the hands of the U.S. State Department.
The department is in a snit over Mewshaw's portrayal of his visit to the U.S. Embassy in Algiers. Mewshaw, who has written 19 books -- fiction and nonfiction -- popped in on Thomas Daughton, the deputy chief of mission, after an exchange of e-mails in which Daughton welcomed the writer's visit. Their conversation was candid and jovial.
Mewshaw says that Daughton seemed a bit lonely -- stuck as he was in an inhospitable environment and grouped with a fairly small contingent at the embassy. "He doesn't leave the embassy much," Mewshaw says. "I don't think he gets a chance to talk to people very much."
In his new book, "Between Terror and Tourism: An Overland Journey Across North Africa," Mewshaw describes Daughton as being in his late 30s and as having a "wry, wisecracking style." It was a welcome change from what he experienced in his previoussit-down with a U.S. official. Pat Kabra, the U.S. public affairs officer in Tunis, was a by-the-book type. When Mewshaw asked her about the recent al-Qaeda kidnapping of two Austrians in the country, she recited what was in the newspapers. "She was like a recorded announcement, very cagey," Mewshaw says.
Not so, Daughton. He gave a frank portrait of Algeria's woes. He compared the country to Zimbabwe: "The need for regime and leadership change is similar in both," he said. He reminded Mewshaw that the men running Algeria in official positions or behind the scenes have been in power for nearly 50 years: "The government is sclerotic and self-serving." And he said these are backward and authoritarian leaders who disregard human rights: "We've been trying . . . to drag them into the 20th century," Daughton said. "Forget about the 21st."
Daughton conveyed that the country is rife with violence that goes unpublicized: "Here you have 50 to a hundred killed each month and you don't hear about it."
Daughton's rare candor about an ally set off a diplomatic kerfuffle after Mewshaw recounted their conversation in his book. In a Middle East publication, U.S. Ambassador to Algeria David D. Pearce denies that Daughton ever said such things. The State Department claims the conversation was off the record and is attempting to cast doubt on Mewshaw's reporting.
"Our basic point is that Tom Daughton, a longtime State Department official, said this conversation was supposed to be off the record and the writer Mewshaw printed quotes from him and quoted him incorrectly," said Michael Ratney, spokesman for the Bureau of Near East Affairs at the State Department.
Ratney took issue with two of Mewshaw's assertions about security at the embassy: that Daughton's office door was bulletproof -- it was not, Ratney said -- and that 30 Marine guards were stationed at the mission -- only six are in residence.
"These factual errors are nonsensical and illogical and indicate to me that there are problems with the whole nature of Mr. Mewshaw's recollection of the conversation," Ratney said.
Mewshaw characterizes Ratney's complaints over small details as a diversionary tactic to draw attention away from the substance of Daughton's remarks. He remembers walking through four Mylar bulletproof doors before getting to Daughton. He added that his notes from their conversation indicate that Daughton said there were 30 Marines at the embassy.
Far more important, Mewshaw says, is that no government official ever told him directly or suggested that his conversation with Daughton was off the record. That is, until the contents were published last month by Counterpoint. Mewshaw even received a jovial and wisecracking e-mail from Daughton shortly after their conversation inviting the author to visit again.
Informed of Mewshaw's rebuttal, Ratney replied: "I'm not going to participate in round after round of 'he said, she said.' We stand by what we said."
Daughton, who did not respond to an e-mail request for comment, has moved to a new posting in Lebanon.
To Mewshaw, the larger issue, he contends, is that the United States, as well as American companies working in Algeria's rich oil and gas industry, publicly ignore the country's violence and violations of human rights.
"Daughton seems to have slipped up and told the truth," Mewshaw writes in an e-mail. Now, Mewshaw says, the United States is trying to ease the strain with its ally. But clearly, he adds, Daughton was privately under no illusions about the nature of Algerian society. "That he would deny this -- that the State Department would willy-nilly go along with his denials -- is simply appalling."