As of 2 p.m. Tuesday, the backroom wrangling of Democratic votes to support President Obama’s jobs bill passed for Washington intrigue. Then the Capitol got a reminder of what real scheming looks like when Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced a foiled plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador. After that, the talk in Washington turned to FBI informants, conspiracy, Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps and Mexican drug cartels.
“Washington,” said former senator Bob Graham (D-Fla.) — the author of “Keys to the Kingdom,” a spy thriller in which Saudi villains kill a U.S. senator — “is a city of espionage.”
“Being the national capital adds a lot of prestige,” added the onetime head of the Senate Intelligence Committee and former 9/11 Commission member, “but also an element of clandestine behavior.”
For decades, Washington’s cloak-and-dagger operations have taken place in congressional cloakrooms, with knifey senators careful not to leave fingerprints. But the hits here weren’t always metaphorical.
In 1941, Walter Germanovich Krivitsky, a former KGB agent who had defected to the United States and written critically of the Soviet Union, was found dead in Washington’s Bellevue Hotel.
In 1954, Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire on the House chamber from the overhanging Ladies’ Gallery, wounding five members of Congress.
In 1976, agents of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet assassinated Marcos Orlando Letelier del Solar, an economist and diplomat who had taken refuge in Washington at American University and as a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. In Washington, Letelier spoke publicly against Pinochet’s regime and lobbied Congress to block loans to the dictator. Pinochet’s agents killed him and his assistant with a car bomb in Sheridan Circle.
Since then, the conspiracies have moved to other continents, with a communist agent in London stabbing a Bulgarian BBC broadcaster with a poison-tipped umbrella, or political enemies in Ukraine poisoning then-presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko’s dinner.
Washington — as far as is publicly known, anyway — has had less bloodshed.
“You can’t spin in Washington without hitting somebody who is in the espionage business,” said Mark Stout, historian at the International Spy Museum. “But it’s unusual that foreign intelligence services try and kill people here.”
According to the complaint unsealed Tuesday, the Iranian government set in motion an international conspiracy to pay killers $1.5 million to assassinate Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir. Two Iranian operatives, linked to the elite Quds Force, sought to hire two men with ties to Mexican drug cartels to attack, among other things, the Saudi Embassy.
But the men turned out to be confidential sources for the Drug Enforcement Administration. The FBI said it monitored the movement of cash through a New York bank to Mansour Arbabsiar, a naturalized U.S. citizen, who was arrested Sept. 29. The other suspect is at large. The State Department said the suspects were never in possession of explosives.
“You can’t make this stuff up,” Stout said.