POLITICS JULY 5, 1999
Last Summer, when President Clinton picked Richard Holbrooke to be his new ambassador to the United Nations, Holbrooke's confirmation by the Senate seemed like a virtual formality. After all, even those who don't like Holbrooke's brash style concede that he's one of the Clinton administration's most effective foreign policy hands; and, as a political operator and self-promoter, Holbrooke's talents are legendary. But it won't be until June 17, exactly a year after Clinton announced Holbrooke's selection, that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee finally gets around to holding hearings on Holbrooke's nomination. Which, of course, begs the question: Who could be powerful—and brazen—enough to keep Richard Holbrooke cooling his heels for a year? Surprisingly, the correct answer isn't North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, the committee chairman who has delayed Holbrooke's hearings. Rather, the man most responsible for putting Holbrooke's nomination in purgatory is one of those Washington gremlins you've probably never heard of but who knows just enough about the system to bring it to a grinding halt: a self-employed foreign affairs consultant named Philip Christenson.
To be sure, Christenson isn't solely responsible for stalling Holbrooke's nomination. He had some help, specifically from an anonymous letter-writer who last July penned a missive to the State Department's inspector general accusing Holbrooke, who was employed by the investment bank Credit Suisse First Boston, of lobbying U.S. ambassadors before the mandatory oneyear cooling-off period for former government officials had ended. The letter prompted a wide-ranging investigation by the State Department's I.G. and then by the Justice Department, which in turn prompted Helms to delay hearings on Holbrooke's nomination.
But once the Justice Department wrapped up its investigation, concluding that Holbrooke's contact with the U.S. ambassador to South Korea was inappropriate—for which Holbrooke, in February, agreed to pay $5,000 but admitted no wrongdoing—it looked as if Holbrooke was in the clear. That's when Christenson went to work. First, on March 28, he wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post suggesting that Holbrooke violated ethics rules by collecting fees for his speeches and writings related to his official duties as U.S. special envoy to Bosnia, Cyprus, and Kosovo. Christenson urged the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to use Holbrooke's nomination hearings as a chance to review the "ethical minefield" that Holbrooke's status as an unpaid special envoy had created. The article, not surprisingly, sparked yet another investigation by the State Department's I.G.—which, of course, led to another delay in the hearings.
Then, on May 5, just as The New York Times was reporting that the inspector general had cleared Holbrooke of any wrongdoing of the kind suggested by Christenson's article, Christenson reared his head again. This time it was in a front-page news story in The Washington Times. The story, for which Christenson now admits he was the principal source, accused Holbrooke of twice breaking off tense negotiations in Yugoslavia with Slobodan Milosevic in order to give paid speeches. One speech was reportedly to an electronics firm in New York for $24,000; another was supposedly a private talk to business executives in Athens, Greece, for $16,000. "I think it's unseemly for U.S. diplomats also to engage in private business activities," Christenson sniffed to the Times. But the State Department insists that Holbrooke never broke off negotiations to give the speeches. Moreover, the speech in New York never took place, and the speech in Athens was an unpaid commencement address. But the initial furor generated by the article did nothing to help Holbrooke's case on the Hill.
This sort of stuff is nothing new for Christenson. A former foreign service officer, he worked as a staffer for Helms on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the 1980s. There, former staffers say, Christenson specialized in sinking State Department and ambassadorial appointments Helms didn't like—and, in the process, some say, getting back at the State Department establishment that derailed his foreign service career. With a network of contacts in the Washington bureaucracy, Christenson was adept at ferreting out damaging bits of information on nominees. "He decided to get into the politics of personal destruction," says Gerald Connolly, a former senior Democratic foreign relations aide who worked with Christenson. "You know, `Let's go into someone's personal life and use it to discredit them.' He did it with abandon."
Indeed, sometimes Christenson may have done it with reckless abandon. Consider the case of Richard Viets. A foreign service officer for 30 years and former ambassador to Tanzania and Jordan, in 1987 Viets was nominated by President Reagan to serve as ambassador to Portugal. But Christenson was able to delay Viets's confirmation for nearly a year over petty ethics charges that were first reported to Christenson by sources within the State Department; Viets ultimately withdrew his nomination.
As Christenson recalls it, Viets was guilty of infractions ranging from lending an employee money to spending too much on embassy alcohol. "He had an official car assigned to his kids," Christenson says with scorn. "The ambassador gets a car. The ambassador's teenage kids don't get a car." According to Viets, though, the real story is a bit more complicated. While he was serving as ambassador to Jordan, he says, Palestinian terrorists threatened to kidnap and murder his daughter, who has Down's syndrome. For her protection, she was guarded and became a virtual prisoner in the ambassador's residence. One day, while Viets was away in Washington and the risk to his daughter's life had subsided, the child's nurse asked one of the embassy drivers to take the young girl out for a picnic. Viets failed to reimburse the government for the cost of the drive. He denies the rest of Christenson's charges, too.
Viets was one of the last nominees Christenson directly derailed. That's because, in 1986, Helms pushed through Christenson's plan for a more independent, subpoenapowered inspector general at the State Department. This allowed Christenson or anyone else to simply forward damaging information to the I.G.—just as Holbrooke's anonymous letter-writer did last year.
Christenson maintains that all of his actions have been motivated by his strict sense of ethics and, in Holbrooke's specific case, by his belief that unpaid special envoys should live by the same rules as other State Department officials. "Once you do business in a country as the U.S. envoy, then that country is off limits for any private-sector activities," he says. "You shouldn't be coming into a country and working as a government official, then coming back and working in the private sector." Really? So how to explain Christenson's own trip to Central Africa in 1997? Christenson—who spent much of his government career working on African issues—traveled to what was then Zaire with officials from American Mineral Fields (AMF), a company that had recently secured lucrative mineral contracts with guerrilla leader Laurent Kabila, who was then in the process of deposing President Mobutu Sese Seko. With Christenson on the trip—and on AMF's private plane—were a State Department official and Representative Cynthia McKinney.
Although AMF executives made much of the presence of the U.S. government officials, presumably to legitimize their trip—which was controversial at the time, since Kabila wasn't even in power—Christenson apparently wasn't troubled enough to raise a protest. "The rule is that government employees have to obey government rules," he says, emphasizing that he was a private citizen on the trip.
Perhaps it's ambiguous situations like this one that have awakened Christenson to the nuances of ethics—because he now says that he has no objections to Holbrooke's nomination and, as he tells me, has actually worked to smooth things over between Holbrooke and Christenson's former boss, Helms. In fact, Christenson boasts that he's responsible for Helms's finally going ahead with Holbrooke's hearings.
Or maybe something else prompted Christenson's change of heart: some well-timed flattery. After Christenson's Washington Post op-ed appeared, Peter Galbraith, former ambassador to Croatia and a friend of both Christenson's and Holbrooke's, approached Christenson. He facilitated an exchange of letters between Holbrooke and Christenson. Christenson ensured the embattled nominee that his article wasn't motivated by personal animus but instead by his concern over special envoys. Holbrooke wrote Christenson back, thanking him for his "thoughtful letter" and noting the "important matters" Christenson raised—matters "which I would be happy to discuss with you after the completion of the present process. " (Holbrooke did not return phone calls asking for comment for this article.)
Whatever it was that changed Christenson's mind on Holbrooke, the change has been profound. Indeed, to listen to Christenson today, you'd think he'd undergone a full-scale conversion. "I don't believe in criminalizing everything," he tells me. "We all make mistakes, and I don't believe that you run around in life trying to destroy people because of a single mistake." No doubt there are a lot of people, Holbrooke among them, who wish Christenson had come to this realization a bit sooner.
Ryan Lizza is The New Yorker’s Washington correspondent. He was a senior editor and political correspondent for The New Republic from 1998 to 2007.