The Bolton Endgame

On the eve of the John Bolton vote, a dizzying stream of new information continued to wash in, filling in the portrait of Bolton and his loyalists as a kind of rogue political force engaged in all-but-open warfare against their bureaucratic enemies in the State Department and the U.S. intelligence community, and openly working to undermine the president's policies of supporting multilateral negotiations on North Korea and Iran's nuclear programs.

Emerging this week were more revelations about the unorthodox staff arrangements Bolton had, including the high-priced management consultant Matthew Freedman, who worked as a consultant for Bolton on a six-figure, taxpayer-funded salary with security clearance while also maintaining a side business consulting private clients whose identities he refused to disclose to the Senate committee staff. Also unusual was the fact that Bolton's acting chief of staff, Frederick Fleitz, worked simultaneously for Bolton and for his home agency, the CIA's non-proliferation department, WINPAC.

Then, on Wednesday, The Hill reported that some Democrats believe Bolton started to avail himself of an alternative intelligence operation bulked up during Bolton's tenure at State which some Democrats said resembled Doug Feith’s alternative intelligence shop at the Pentagon that produced hyped and misleading assessments of Saddam's collaboration with Osama bin Laden and Iraq's nuclear program. All these latest revelations were just more data points in the amply documented portrait of Bolton as a paranoid rogue operator who behaved as if he were dropped behind enemy lines while working in Colin Powell’s State Department, and using wired-in operatives to spy on his American bureaucratic enemies.

This persistent stream of revelations continues to damage Bolton, the moderate GOP senators who may vote for him (under tremendous threats and pressure from the White House), and the Bush administration. Indeed, this kind of all-or-nothing White House fanaticism shows how terrified the administration is to lose party discipline on any single issue.

While the Senate Foreign Relations committee chair Richard Lugar and even the Iowa trading group, TradeSport, predicted Bolton would get through committee on Thursday, a few observers said it was still too early to call the game.

"I don't think it's over," insists Steve Clemons, a New America Foundation senior fellow and former Hill staffer, who has led public opposition to the Bolton nomination from his blog, The Washington Note. "Lugar and everyone are acting as if it's a done deal. That's good psychological warfare. But my sense is that there are too many huge problems for these people to automatically vote yes on. It's very complicated for these senators."

On Capitol Hill�where Senate Foreign Relations committee staff have been pulling 20 hour days the past three weeks conducting an intensive investigation and more than 30 interviews since the Bolton vote was stalled in a surprise move by Ohio Republican Sen. George Voinovich last month�the mood late Tuesday night was that whatever the outcome, it was a process fought well with everything they had.

"We're going to convince one or more Republicans that this nominee is unqualified," says Norm Kurz, spokesman for Sen. Biden, only partly tongue in cheek. "Surely everyone must recognize that."

"We're going to win on the merits," said Kurz. "There's no dispute about Bolton's arm twisting, the cherry picking the material to fit his own views, surely no one can dispute that he tried to get Christian Westermann fired. He can't run a mission at the U.N. because of the way he abuses people, lied to the committee, under oath ... ."

Yet committee minority staff said Sen. Voinovich was still the key, and indeed, as of late Tuesday, the Ohio Republican had publicly refused to say which way he'll vote, except that he'll vote his conscience. "Voinovich is the guy who might just have his conscience pricked again," says Kurz. "I wouldn't bet on it happening, but I wouldn't say the game is over."

If Voinovich is in fact the key, then the most substantive charges of rogue behavior and intelligence politicization may not ironically be the factors that bring him down. Bolton’s repeated pattern of intelligence manipulation and politicization, his efforts to derail the administration’s policy in support of six-party talks on North Korea and European-led negotiations on Iran's nuclear program, including by withholding intelligence from Condoleezza Rice on allied reaction to his zealous efforts to get IAEA chief Mohammed el Baradei canned, Bolton’s repeated freelance efforts to meet with foreign officials abroad without clearing his meetings with State Department colleagues and ambassadors, and reports that Bolton was shut out of the Libya loop at U.K. pleas to the White House�while all amply demonstrated by media reports and the Senate committee in dozens of interviews�may not have been the issue that most animated the public and indeed, Sen. Voinovich, in applying the brakes to this most controversial nomination.

Rather, it was the evidence that Bolton was a serial abuser that in some ways most resonated with people everywhere who understand from their own experience what, in former INC chief Carl Ford Jr.'s terminology before the committee, it means to say Bolton was a pre-eminent "kiss up, kick down" kind of guy.

Regardless of the outcome, the Bolton nomination has changed the political battlefield in Washington. While Bush stands to lose big if Bolton's nomination is not approved by the Senate Foreign Relations committee Thursday, Democrats have already made considerable gains. Observers say Bolton opponents scored a public and important victory in achieving such a penetrating and public investigation so far, one that revealed a startling glimpse not only into Bolton's appalling and at times almost cartoonish operating style, but a detailed look at the larger context of a Bush administration so divided on the most pressing national security matters that it was often consumed with working against itself.

"It showed the Democrats there was a constituency out there for resisting inappropriate or controversial nominees," said Chris Nelson of Samuels International, a longtime acute observer of the Washington foreign policy scene in his Nelson Report. "Democrats have helped themselves by managing to sound uncharacteristically reasonable, while the Republicans have managed to sound so extreme, victims of this kind of Caligula force. It reminds the Republicans that there is a price for this kind of stuff."

As for whether Senate Democrats should use procedural means to stymie the vote Thursday�given that the Senate Foreign Relations committee had still not received some of the documents it had repeatedly requested from the State Department and the NSA as late as Wednesday�Nelson said no.

"The Democrats recognize they can't go to the nuclear option on Bolton," Nelson said. "The judges are the game here. Bolton is spring training."

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