THE BLOG
01/04/2006 04:31 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

John Bolton & NSA Intercepts: The Connection That Mattered Was International

The Washington Note has been inundated with emails asking why I have not written more about revelations about non-court approved NSA intercepts of electronic phone and email transmissions within the United States and the connection to John Bolton's requests for NSA intercept material when he served as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security.

My response will no doubt frustrate many, but it is an honest one. I don't believe that John Bolton was involved with electronic monitoring or spying domestically -- with a couple of potential exceptions.

There is a remote chance that Bill Richardson's activities with North Korean diplomacy may have been monitored by the NSA. Richardson had discussions with Colin Powell over his private diplomacy as well as electronic interactions with the North Korean mission to the United Nations.

The NSA does monitor transmissions in and out of the United Nations and is one of the ways that John Bolton was able to get hold of discussion transcripts with IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei. The United Nations, I am told, is not considered part of the definition of and prohibitions against "domestic" eavesdropping.

Bill Richardson thinks he was monitored. I am not sure, but Bolton would have had an interest in what Richardson was doing with the North Koreans. It is not clear to me why it would be inappropriate to monitor North Korean interactions with anyone, including Richardson -- whose name would have been redacted from the intercepts. What does bother me was Bolton's interest in a policy area as well as the names of specific people in an arena he had been fenced off from. Bolton was working overtime to undermine Colin Powell and staff on its Korea Peninsula diplomacy.

Of the ten intercepts that Bolton requested to know the identities of 18 American individuals whose identities had been redacted, we know that two of the intercepts were based on international communications.

One of these transcripts was leaked to Douglas Jehl of the New York Times and had to do with American corporate activity in China. Another of these intercepts -- or at least the contents of such -- came the way of TWN and dealt with American policy towards Libya. The name of the individual requested by Bolton was then Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs William Burns.

Although TWN has not had any other direct contact with the actual content of other Bolton-related NSA intercepts, we have had contact with some who are knowledgeable about such intercepts and have had discussions with those who have made sophisticated calculations about what the transcripts were about.

TWN also suspects -- but has not confirmed -- that the U.S. government official who was congratulated by Bolton after Bolton read something in an intercept was former Assistant Secretary of State for Non-Proliferation John Wolf. But this is speculation -- not confirmed information.

In all of my discussions with people about these intercepts, none -- other than the Richardson/North Korea matter which might have been monitored domestically -- ever had a "domestic spying" dimension to it.

The names that most suspected of being on the roster of names requested by Bolton might have been John Wolf, Richard Armitage, William Burns, and others. Or, they might have been names we simply do not know and which would not be easily recognized except by those familiar with working staff inside the national security and diplomatic bureaucracy.

In my view, Bolton was spying on his colleagues. He was engaged in a turf war with others in his Department and was attempting to systematically undermine his overseers, Colin Powell and Richard Armitage. Someone quite familiar with Bolton's activities -- and not Lawrence Wilkerson (just to make that clear) -- told me that his intercept activity demonstrated no high crimes but rather "poor judgment and personal vanity."

There is also the possibility that John Negroponte's name was among those requested by John Bolton -- and Negroponte, who now serves as Director of National Intelligence but served previously as U.S. Ambassador to Iraq as well as to the United Nations -- did not want Bolton's antics regarding colleagues put out for public consumption.

TWN learned quite a while ago that John Negroponte never viewed John Bolton with much favor. They are not friends and had little contact when Bolton was at the State Department. Some speculate that Negroponte's decision to withhold the roster of NSA intercept identities of such interest to Bolton was designed by Negroponte to neither hurt Bolton -- NOR help him. It was also designed to keep -- perhaps -- Negroponte's own name out of the mix.

Negroponte's decision nearly sunk Bolton's appointment as the failure to provide the NSA intercepts, which the National Security Agency had consented to be released to the relevant Senators before being blocked by the Director of National Intelligence, stopped Bolton's Senate confirmation.

TWN is confident that the pattern of vanity, jealousy, and professional vindictiveness that would emerge from both the subject matter of the NSA intercepts that interested Bolton as well as the roster of 18 names would have been enough to turn a majority of the Senate against Bolton's confirmation in an up-or-down vote. The content of several other of the NSA intercepts that interested Bolton and his then chief-of-staff Frederick Fleitz dealt with policy matters that Colin Powell and Rich Armitage had blocked Bolton from participating in.

None of these matters were domestically focused, and my own sense is that Bolton was not interested in private American citizens who might have been chatting with al Qaeda-connected operatives. Bolton was acting as Vice President Cheney's agent inside the State Department on what they considered to be bigger policy battles involving Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and North Korea.

Bolton's errors of judgment don't need to be stretched to include the current controversy over President Bush's duplicitous side-stepping of the courts in approving domestic wiretaps. They are bad enough as they are.