John R. Bolton, President Bush's designate to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was one of more than a half dozen senior Bush administration officials who received highly classified NSA intercepts of private phone conversations of Mohammed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, according to government officials familiar with the matter. The IAEA is the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency.
That the NSA was intercepting the phone calls of IAEA officers, particularly ElBaradei, is in and of itself hardly big news. IAEA officials have known about the eavesdropping for more than a decade, and have made it a point not to conduct sensitive diplomacy over the telephone. An IAEA spokesman told reporters in Dec. of last year, for example: "We've always assumed that this kind of thing goes on. We wish it were otherwise, but we know the reality."
But Bolton differed from other consumers of the intelligence, according to two senior government officials familiar with the matter, in that when the intercepts proved all but useless to his cause to oust ElBaradei from his IAEA post, he privately encouraged more aggressive intelligence gathering operations against the IAEA, the United Nations, and other international organizations.
The Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Pat Roberts, of Kansas, and the committee's ranking Democrat, John D. Rockefeller IV, of West Virginia, are expected to be briefed today by senior Bush administration officials on specific NSA intercepts Bolton requested to read while he served as a senior State Department official. An unconfirmed report by the Associated Press said yesterday that Deputy National Intelligence Director Gen. Michael Hayden, who is a former head of the NSA, would conduct the briefing.
In an interview with the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Friday, Lawrence S. Wilkerson, a chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, said that Bolton "overstepped his bounds" through "his moves and gyrations" in attempting to prevent the reappointment of ElBaradei as head of the IAEA.
"Now, what do I mean by that?" Mr. Wilkerson said. "I mean, going out of his way to bad-mouth him, to make sure that everybody knew that the maximum power of the United States would be brought to bear against them if he were brought back in." (For more information on Wilkerson's interview with the SFRC staff, one should read this New York Times story.)
While it is hardly unusual for senior State Department officials to task intelligence agencies with specific requests for information, one official told me that the requests of Bolton and similar minded officials "stuck out like a sore thumb" because of Bolton's activist role in attempting to oust ElBaradei. Moreover, the request appeared to target ElBaradei in particular, while ordinarily intelligence information is sought concerning policy and issues. One official told me: "You don't request on individuals."
Bolton's effort to oust ElBaradei was also a contentious issue within the State Department. The efforts to oust ElBarbadei were opposed by, among others, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, then- deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, and the then-assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, John Wolf.
Update 7:46 A.M, May 10: In this morning's Los Angeles Times, reporter Mary Curtius, in an exemplary example of political reporting, explains why it is increasingly more likely than not that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will favorably vote out Bolton's nomination on Thursday.
Here are some excerpts:
"For all three Republican senators who have expressed reservations about John R. Bolton's nomination as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the committee vote set for Thursday is about much more than whether he is the best man for the job...
"With the administration putting on a full-court press, Democrats say they would be surprised if [Sens.] Voincovich, Hagel, or Chaffee were to break ranks and hand Bush an embarrassing political setback.
"In the end, both sides say, the questions raised about Bolton's personality and management style may prove less important to the wavering senators than issues of... political pragmatism.
"A vote against Bolton, said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster, `poses the most danger for Hagel,' who is widely believed to be laying groundwork for a 2008 presidential race.
"Bolton... has publicly criticized the United Nations-- one reason he has has received strong support from party's conservative base, Fabrizio said...
"The three senators must also take into account that Bolton's nomination `is perceived by the party base as an ideological fight' and by the Senate Republican majority as a challenge from Democrats to its control of the chamber, said David Keene, head of the American Conservative Union, a lobbying group.
"For Hagel's hopes of support from party conservatives in a possible presidential bid, Keene said, `it would not be particularly beneficial to be seen as having knifed Bolton in the back.'"
A few comments and observations of my own:
First, what has gone unreported in this story and in others about Republican efforts to confirm Bolton, is that the White House has very effectively lobbied potentially wavering Republican Senators on the SFRC by arguing that a vote against Bolton would also endanger the Bush administration's agenda on social security, judicial nominations, and crucial foreign policy issues. One congressional staffer sums up this very effective White House lobbying stratagem this way: "A vote for or against Bolton is not about Bolton."
Second, is it really that unbelievable that Lincoln Chaffee or John Hagel would vote their conscience, and actually vote against Bolton? Or that they would put the national interest ahead of the their own political interests or that of their party?
Finally, I still believe it is too early for anyone to be sure which way the vote is going to come down. Curtius credibly makes the case as to why Bolton be voted out, but although it is less likely today than in the past that a Senator will vote his or her conscience, it is not entirely unheard of for him or her to do so. At least we can still hold out hope that that still is the case.
Hagel, for one, has indicated that he will now probably vote for Bolton. Hagel wants to run for President, and the White House and conservative activists have assiduously tied a vote against Bolton as a poke in the eye to the Republican base as the vote nears.
Increasingly, the Republican Senator to watch is George Voinovich of Ohio, who is now most likely to be spoiler. Voinovich would alienate both the base of the Republican party and the White House, obviously, by voting against Bolton. Thus a vote against Bolton would come with a high cost. The upside would be that he would almost instantaneously become a national figure, be heralded for voting for conscience, and pick up both Democratic and swing votes in his next re-election bid.