Veteran diplomat Robin Raphel never shunned assignments in dangerous places — Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq among them — countries where strict operational secrecy might well save your life. During her long government career, from the CIA to the State Department, she knew the protocols for handling classified NOFORN materials, meaning those not to be shared with foreign nationals or governments, friendly or otherwise.
Now, to the shock of many friends and colleagues, Raphel’s storied and distinguished career has imploded amid reports that she has been caught up in an FBI-led espionage investigation. In October, federal agents hauled bags and boxes from her Washington home — where they found classified documents, according to two U.S. officials — and searched her State Department office.
No charges have been filed against the 67-year-old retired envoy, who had been recalled to the State Department in 2009 because of her deep Pakistan expertise. She has not been formally interviewed by the FBI. But she has lost her security clearance and contract.
Officials have told reporters that the FBI opened its counterintelligence probe after intercepting a communication of a Pakistani official that suggested Raphel might have been involved in providing secrets to the Pakistani government.
“It is totally and completely impossible that Robin could have been involved in anything such as has been alleged through the media,” says her old friend and colleague Tim Carney, a former ambassador.
“This is beyond anything I could imagine,” says Teresita Schaffer, an ex-ambassador whose professional ties to Raphel date to the mid-’70s in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. “Bizarre beyond words.”
Raphel would not comment. Her attorney, Amy Jeffress, says Raphel is cooperating with the investigation, and that she is confident her client will be “cleared of any suspicion.”
“She is telling good friends she doesn’t know what it’s about,” says an acquaintance who declined to be identified so as to preserve his relationship with Raphel. “One thing it has done is succeeded in destroying her, professionally and personally. It’s devastating.”
But one of her traits, says Tom Hutson, a retired consul general who has known Raphel for 45 years, is an almost implacable reserve. “I’ve never seen Robin being emotional about anything,” he says. “No tear in her eye or expression of joy.”
Who is Robin Lynn Raphel? Tall, blonde and blue-eyed, she has been described as an elegant and confident woman — comfortable on stage, literally. In the early 1970s she acted and danced in U.S.-backed productions in Tehran, where she taught at a women’s college.
Hutson, president of the international theater during Raphel’s Iran days, recalls that she was particularly memorable dancing the lead part in the rollicking musical “Anything Goes.”
People who have known her over the years — among them former bosses, diplomatic associates and think-tank habitues — also describe her as tireless, efficient, no-nonsense. Tough, but then, she has had to be.
Raphel’s career successes have been offset by tragedy and disappointments in her personal life. One of her early boyfriends — an Oxford roommate of the young Bill Clinton — would kill himself; an ex-husband died in a mysterious plane crash when he was U.S. ambassador to Pakistan.
She has endured three divorces — in the Foreign Service, marital strain often comes with the career — and raised two daughters largely on her own, according to acquaintances.
People who know her also mention that Raphel, a devoted equestrian, suffered a horrible riding accident in 1991 in India, thrown by her horse and kicked in the face. The blow rammed her nasal bone into her head, and she was hospitalized for weeks.
But she didn’t quit riding, her friends say. It was what she loved to do.
Raphel is known to have an abiding affection for Pakistan, a country that has lost the trust of many Washington policymakers and lawmakers. Though crucial to regional stability and U.S. security interests, Pakistan is often seen as a double-dealer, accused by top U.S. officials of sheltering terrorists and abetting U.S. enemies, such as the Afghan Taliban.
Raphel has spent recent years helping to disburse billions in civilian aid to the underdeveloped country and doing the tough diplomatic work of smoothing a fraught bilateral relationship; no one was better qualified, her supporters say.
Now it seems both cruel and apt that she should end her career in a weird, unnerving limbo. Cruel because even if she’s cleared, friends say, she will bear some taint forever.
Apt because intrigue is the very nature of Pakistan.
High school classmates in Longview, Wash., voted Robin Lynn Johnson most likely to succeed. “Everybody knew that she was going to do something special,” her fellow student John Kirkpatrick, now a Seattle physician, told the Daily News of Longview in 2006.
Long before Robin Johnson became Robin Raphel the globetrotting diplomat, “she seemed to have a worldly sense about her,” he said. Raphel told the newspaper that, after high school, “I was anxious to see the world.”
She earned bachelor’s degrees in history and economics at the University of Washington, spending her junior year at the University of London. After graduation in 1968, she entered Cambridge University, about 100 miles away from Oxford, where she had a boyfriend named Frank Aller; he also had attended the University of Washington.
Aller was close friends with a fellow Rhodes Scholar and the future president, Bill Clinton. At the time, Clinton was sharing a house with Aller, a China scholar, and Strobe Talbott, a Russia scholar and future deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration.
Because Robin Johnson went out with Aller, she came to know the gregarious Clinton — who shortly after he assumed office in 1993 would appoint her to a top State Department post responsible for South Asia.
“I remember seeing her at the house at parties with Frank,” recalls David Satter, an author and journalist who was in the same Rhodes Scholars class and stayed in touch with Raphel. (He calls her “an extremely nice person, a sweet, likeable person, an intelligent person.”)
For the scholars, the Vietnam War and their draft status were of urgent concern. They debated the war’s morality and attended protests. But only Aller took the ultimate step: In January 1969 he officially declared himself a draft resister, becoming a fugitive from justice.
Two years later, though never prosecuted, he shot himself in the head with a handgun. Aller suffered from depression, “which crowds out rationality with a vengeance,” Clinton later noted in his memoir. Yet some came to view Aller as a martyr to the era.
Raphel’s assessment, offered through the retrospective lens of 20-plus years, seemed blunt: “At the end of the day, he took it all too seriously,” she said in a 1992 New York Times article about Aller. “Most people checked out of the intensity of those times — and Frank never did.”
Robin Johnson arrived in Tehran in 1970 to teach history for two years. She was in her early 20s when she met Arnold Lewis Raphel, a sharply analytical, funny U.S. Embassy political officer whom friends rightly pegged as a future diplomatic star. (He also was treasurer of the theater troupe in Tehran, says Hutson.)
Arnie Raphel, as friends called him, was older, divorced and had a young daughter. He left Iran in 1971 and Robin left a year later to study economics at the University of Maryland, where she earned a master’s degree. She then served a stint at the CIA as an economic analyst.
By 1975, Robin had joined the Foreign Service and was working in Islamabad on detail to the U.S. Agency for International Development. That year, Arnie Raphel was posted as a political officer at the embassy in Islamabad. Both remained until 1978, and during this time they got married back in Tehran, in what some recall as an elaborate mixed-faith production (she was Christian, he Jewish) orchestrated by their old theater friends.
Her talents were soon evident to the State Department establishment. Returning to Washington, she won top staff aide jobs, including a stint with Hal Saunders, the assistant secretary of state for Near East and South Asian affairs. At the time Saunders was enmeshed in the Camp David Accords and the hostage crisis in Iran.
“She was very bright, and she was dedicated to her work,” he says. “And it was a lousy job — long hours and lots of grunt work.”
Arnie Raphel, meanwhile, was serving as special assistant to secretary of state Cyrus Vance, becoming a central player in efforts to gain the release of the 52 Americans that Iran took captive in 1979. Fluent in Farsi, he was seen as the U.S. diplomat who most understood the Iranians.
Similarly, over the years, his wife would gain a reputation for understanding best the Pakistani mind-set — as shaped by the complex ethnic, hierarchical and religious forces in society there. She spoke Urdu, the native language, and developed enduring friendships within the country.
The couple split around 1980, according to acquaintances, who say Robin was devastated by the divorce. She took a posting in London in 1984. Arnie remarried.
In 1987, the Reagan administration entrusted to him a vital position — ambassador to Pakistan, which at the time was assisting the U.S. proxy war against the Soviet army next door in Afghanistan.
In August 1988, ambassador Raphel boarded Pak One, a C-130 transport plane carrying president Mohammed Zia Ul-Haq and senior staff. It crashed shortly after takeoff, killing all aboard. It remains an unsolved case, although sabotage was suspected: One theory holds that the pilots were incapacitated by a canister of nerve gas stashed in a crate of mangoes on board.
After postings in South Africa and New Delhi, Robin Raphel’s career accelerated sharply: In 1993, Clinton plucked her from a relatively low position as political counselor in New Delhi and appointed her to the newly created post of assistant secretary for South Asia.
The appointment came at “an extraordinarily early point in her career,” says Teresita Schaffer, a South Asia specialist who was U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka at the time.
Raphel’s four-year stint was beset by huge diplomatic challenges in the region. Her candid style didn’t always play well.
To the fury of India, she suggested Pakistan still had valid claims to the disputed territory of Kashmir, saying the U.S. did not believe Kashmir “is forever more an integral part of India.” Even now, Indian media berate Raphel and delight in her current difficulties.
During her tenure, Raphel also had to confront a civil war in Afghanistan that had been stoked by U.S. and Pakistani intelligence agencies’ support for Islamist radicals fighting to oust the Soviets. It culminated in the Taliban’s taking over the country in 1996.
She warned against isolating the Taliban despite their regressive human rights record. “We have to understand who these people are,” Thomas Gouttierre, whom Raphel appointed as the State Department’s representative to the U.N. special mission to Afghanistan, remembers her saying. She met several times in Afghanistan with various factions and with the Taliban’s leadership.
“They were very polite,” Raphel later told the Boston Globe.
In 1990, Raphel married Leonard Arthur Ashton, a South African journalist. She came into the marriage with a young daughter. She and Ashton also had a daughter together. By 1997 she was appointed ambassador to Tunisia.
Their marriage ended in 2000. She then married a British diplomat named Robert Pierce. They divorced in 2004.
Raphel appears to have raised her children in a manner that evidenced her belief in connecting to the people on the other side of the U.S. Embassy walls.
“As a child, I remember discovering corners of New Delhi’s bazaars with my mother and her Indian friends,” older daughter Alexandra Raphel wrote in the Global Post in 2013. “She always made sure our houses overseas were more heavily stocked with fruit and spices from a local market rather than packaged comforts shipped from back home.”
Raphel’s willingness to work in conflict zones brought her to chaotic Baghdad as one of the U.S. diplomats trying to help the Iraqis establish a semblance of government after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. She took on various financial oversight roles and eventually became deputy to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, whose office tried to account for $61 billion in often hastily distributed U.S. aid.
“I’d call her a strong personality,” says the former special inspector, Stuart Bowen. “She is smart, articulate, accomplished — and a very difference-making public servant.”
After leaving the Iraq job in 2007, Raphel joined a Washington lobbying firm whose clients included the government of Pakistan; then two years later, soon after leaving the firm, she rejoined the State Department on contract.
In his first term, President Obama turned to the late Richard Holbrooke to take on a new post — special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Holbrooke asked Raphel, an old hand with connections at every level, to advise him and run operations in Islamabad.
“She spent time and energy on building layered relationships, which in a diplomatic era of forgettable friendships positioned her as an old-school perennial,” says Sherry Rehman, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington.
She has known Raphel for 15 years. The American diplomat had the necessary experience to “navigate her way in America’s interests through many otherwise closed doors,” Rehman says.
Tom Hutson calls Raphel a patriot and asks,“How much more does she have to give to her country?” He is among several acquaintances who remain hopeful that mishandling classified documents would end up the only offense against her, if there is one at all. Bringing home classified materials is not uncommon and has tripped up other seasoned government officials — among them a CIA director, John Deutsch, and a U.S. attorney general, Alberto Gonzales.
Her friends are angry and alarmed that the public even came to know of the investigation. Leaking the existence of a highly sensitive alleged espionage matter raises the issue of whether the leakers are just as culpable of compromising national security as the accused.
“Who knows what it was that triggered it,” says her friend Tim Carney.
Did Raphel cross any lines? Did she say something to anyone that she shouldn’t have? Speculation is, at this stage, rather pointless, but a reporter calling around is met almost immediately with some acquaintances asking hungrily, “What more do we know?”
For one thing, we know it’s Pakistan.
Raphel’s attorney offers this on the former ambassador’s behalf:
“She has held a series of very senior positions in which she was responsible for discussing sensitive issues with foreign officials to promote the interests of the United States. We are confident the investigation will confirm that Ambassador Raphel would never knowingly compromise those interests, and that she will therefore be cleared of any suspicion.”
Weeks or months may pass before Raphel is either charged or exonerated. While she waits at her home in American University Park, she has attended foreign-policy functions and gone back to some writing projects from before she rejoined the State Department.
She asked people in her circle to shun the media and hired a Los Angeles PR man to deal with reporters. But some people felt obliged to speak, such as longtime friend Ellen Laipson, a respected former intelligence official now heading the Stimson Center, a global security think tank.
Like others, Laipson finds the whole business inconceivable. Sounding exasperated, she adds, “You really start to think, what’s wrong with Washington?”