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"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Author, "African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement
July 1, 2020
Bolton Senate Vote Delayed

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Miles A. Pomper

Although Democrats succeeded May 26 in putting off a final vote, John R. Bolton appears close to winning Senate approval as the next U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. Bolton served as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security during President George W. Bush’s first term and has undergone a bruising confirmation process based, in part, on his record in that post.

The Senate May 25 began consideration of Bolton’s nomination. But Democrats succeeded in blocking a GOP attempt May 26 to cut off the debate and move to a final vote when Republicans fell just short of the required three-fifths majority for such a procedural move. Still, the 56-42 vote indicated that Republicans would likely have the simple majority needed to approve the nomination itself. A confirmation vote is expected soon after Congress returns June 7 from a week-long Memorial Day recess.

Democrats indicated that they only planned to hold up the vote temporarily as a protest against the Bush administration’s failure to provide intelligence information they had sought.

“We’re not here to filibuster Bolton,” said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. “We’re here to get more information on Bolton.”

The same day the Senate with little ado confirmed Robert Joseph to succeed Bolton as the State Department’s top arms control official. During Bush’s first term, Joseph had served as a top arms control aide to Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the National Security Council. He also held several diplomatic posts in the administration of Bush’s father.

The latest delay on Bolton’s nomination owed to Democratic frustration with the administration’s resistance to provide additional information on a number of issues, particularly Bolton’s interactions with intelligence agencies regarding Syria and requests Bolton made to the National Security Agency (NSA) to reveal the identity of U.S. officials whose calls had been monitored.

Normally, such officials remain anonymous, although highlevel officials such as Bolton are entitled to make such requests. In a May 25 letter to his colleagues, John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.V.), the ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, said he had seen nothing untoward in Bolton’s requests for the NSA information.

But Rockefeller raised concerns about how Bolton used the information he received and called for further exploration. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has opposed releasing the material, saying it could discourage open debate within the administration.

The Senate floor debate followed two Foreign Relations Committee hearings, a nearly month-long panel investigation, and two separate additional meetings of the panel, which still failed to give Bolton its endorsement. Bush nominated Bolton for the UN post in March. (See ACT, April 2005.)

Bolton and Intelligence Credibility
The Foreign Relations committee had first been set to vote on Bolton’s nomination April 19, but in an effort to garner majority support, panel chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) delayed the vote for a month. Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) had said he wanted more time to study Bolton’s record after Democrats indicated they had new and damaging revelations about the nominee. (See ACT, May 2005.)

At the May 12 hearing, Voinovich said that he opposed Bolton’s nomination, arguing that Bolton’s tendency to speak bluntly could worsen the poor U.S. image abroad. Calling Bolton “the poster child of what someone in the diplomatic corps should not be,” Voinovich said, “The United States can do better than John Bolton.”

However, Voinovich said that “I’m not so arrogant to think that I should impose my own judgment and perspective of the U.S. position in the world community on the rest of my colleagues. We owe it to the president to give Mr. Bolton an up-or-down vote on the floor of the United States Senate.”

In the weeks since the panel first delayed its vote on Bolton’s nomination, committee aides conducted 29 interviews with current and former U.S. government officials. Their remarks shed further light on several disputes between Bolton and career officials and his State Department superiors over how he used intelligence in making policy arguments.

Democrats said that the disputes would undermine the credibility of any assertions that Bolton might make about foreign weapons programs during UN Security Council debates on such subjects as Iran’s nuclear program. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), the panel’s ranking member, alluded to the fact that U.S. credibility had already suffered a body blow in New York after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Postinvasion investigations have disproved the key elements of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s February 2003 speech to the Security Council, which insisted that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons and was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.

“It is not in our national interest to have someone at the UN who has a reputation for exaggerating intelligence when the next crisis comes along,” Biden said. “We have already lost a lot of credibility for exaggerating intelligence, and he is not the one to rebuild it.”

Lugar disagreed. “With regard to the most serious charge—that Secretary Bolton sought to improperly manipulate intelligence—the insights we have gained do not support the conclusion,” Lugar said. “He may have disagreed with intelligence findings, but in the end, he always accepted the final judgment of the intelligence community and always delivered speeches in cleared form.”

Still, committee interviews revealed that the disputes became so intense that, by the summer of 2003, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was insisting that he personally approve any of Bolton’s speeches or testimony. Lawrence B. Wilkerson, who served as Powell’s chief of staff, provided that information to panel aides.

Wilkerson said that the immediate trigger for Armitage’s decision was a hard-hitting July 2003 speech that Bolton delivered on North Korea in which he called its leader Kim Jong-Il a “tyrannical dictator” and life in his country a “hellish nightmare.” The remarks came just before the launch of six-party talks with North Korea aimed at persuading Pyongyang to end its nuclear weapons program and prompted strenuous objections from then-U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Thomas Hubbard.

How Much Leeway on Intelligence?
Other disputes centered on how much and in what way Bolton could and did stray from the consensus of the intelligence community when he sought to represent U.S. views on controversial nonproliferation targets such as Syria, Cuba, and China.

In a written response to a written question from panel member Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Bolton said that “a policy official may state his own reading of the intelligence (assuming the information is cleared for release as a policy matter) as long as he does not purport to speak for the intelligence community.” However, some intelligence officials and Democrats say that traditionally officials have sought to adhere to the known intelligence and to be explicit if they are stating personal views.

Syria
In June 2003, for example, Wilkerson said that Armitage had intervened and forced Bolton to call off testimony he planned to give on whether Syria had made significant strides toward developing nuclear weapons.

Although the delay stemmed in part from negotiations with Syria on other issues, it also reflected intelligence community concern about Bolton’s planned remarks, according to Robert Hutchings, who served as chairman of the National IntelligenceCouncil (NIC) from 2003 until January of this year. The NIC is the intelligence community’s center for midterm and long-term strategic analyses, charged with taking the lead in preparing crucial national intelligence estimates (NIEs) that represent consensus intelligence views.

Hutchings said that, keeping the Iraq experience in mind, he had refused to sign off on a proposed draft that Bolton wanted to deliver to the House International Relations Committee in June 2003. A watered-down version was ultimately delivered to the panel in September of that year.

“The first version I saw struck me as going well beyond what—where the evidence would legitimately take us.” He said the NIC concerns were strongly shared by other parts of the intelligence community.

Bolton “took isolated facts and made much more to build a case than the intelligence warranted. It was a sort of cherry-picking of little factoids and little isolated bits that were drawn out to present the starkest-possible case,” Hutchings said.

The New York Times had previously reported that Bolton had planned to tell the House panel in June that U.S. officials were “looking at Syria’s nuclear program with growing concern” and that they “continue to monitor it for any signs of nuclear weapons intent.” An April 2003 CIA report said only that, “[i]n principle, broader access to Russian expertise provides opportunities for Syria to expand its indigenous capabilities, should it decide to pursue nuclear weapons.”

Cuba
Hutchings said that the Iraq intelligence failures also caused analysts in 2003 and 2004 to reconsider the threat that Cubawould develop biological weapons. Panel hearings and related committee interviews last month revealed that in 2002 Bolton had sought to have a State Department intelligence official and a NIC officer removed from their positions after they warned that a Bolton speech would go beyond known intelligence about potential dangers from Havana.

“After the Iraq [weapons of mass destruction] estimate, I instructed the managers of the worldwide [biological weapons] estimate to go back and scrub, review, and verify every source—every single one—not to take any for granted,” Hutchings said. “In the course of this, most of the judgments that we had reached earlier held up, but some did not. And one of them that did not hold up was the judgment on Cuba.”

Bolton had proposed giving a speech in May 2002 claiming that “[t]he United States believes that Cuba has a developmental offensive biological weapons program and is providing assistance to other rogue state programs.”

Ultimately, Bolton delivered a watered-down version of his planned remarks. Eventually, however, even those remarks were viewed as far too strong. By the fall of 2004, The New York Times reported that a new NIE could conclude only that the intelligence community “continues to believe that Cuba has the technical capability to pursue some aspects of an offensive biological weapons program.”

China
Bolton’s chief of staff, Frederick Fleitz, played a key role in a number of the disputes between Bolton and other State Department officials. Fleitz is on loan to Bolton from the CIA’s Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation, and Arms Control Center (WINPAC).

One particular sore point involving Fleitz—and in which Bolton’s role is unclear—was a September 2002 quarrel between Fleitz and officials in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). The dispute concerned a critical WINPAC analysis of changes to China’s export controls on missiles and missile technology that was sent to Armitage at Bolton’s request.

When INR, which had not approved the WINPAC report, sent it to Armitage, it also attached an analysis disputing the WINPAC conclusions and expressing a more positive view of China’s actions. Angered by INR’s action, Fleitz threatened not to allow INR to see such reports in the future and find a way to get them directly to Armitage’s desk.

Such analyses were being used to help decide whether the United States should levy sanctions on Beijing for alleged missile transfers as well as to formulate U.S. policy concerning China’s efforts to join the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). They are normally transmitted to the State Department’s senior officials by INR.

The MTCR includes more than 30 countries dedicated to limiting the spread of ballistic missiles. It decided last October against letting China join because of Beijing’s alleged failure to meet their nonproliferation standards. (See ACT, November 2004.)

Bolton has been highly critical of China’s export control efforts and has repeatedly authorized sanctions against Chinese entities for allegedly aiding missile programs in Iran and other countries. At Bolton’s urging, the Bush administration has invoked proliferation sanctions more than 100 times in slightly more than four years. The Clinton administration imposed 70 proliferation sanctions over eight years. (ACT, January/February 2005.)

Normal Give-and-Take?
Republicans such as Lugar argued that Bolton’s attempts to challenge intelligence were well warranted and in the nature of the give-and-take of policymaking. Yet, some of those who spoke to committee aides disagreed.

“When policy officials came back repeatedly to push the same kind of judgments, and push the intelligence community to confirm a particular set of judgments,” Hutchings said, “it does have the effect of politicizing intelligence, because the so-called ‘correct answer’ becomes all too clear.”

Former deputy CIA director John E. McLaughlin told investigators that “it’s perfectly all right” for a policymaker to disagree with an analyst and “challenge their work vigorously.” But he said it was another matter to request a transfer because of a disagreement “unless there is malfeasance involved.” McLaughlin said that was not the case with the NIC officer Bolton sought to have removed and for which McLaughlin had “high regard.”