The Senate committee assessing John Bolton's nomination as the next U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Wednesday widened its inquiry to interview several more potentially hostile witnesses, in a fresh blow to the White House. Only months after his reelection, George W. Bush's authority is being challenged on several fronts. The president has risked his prestige with his adamant support for Bolton, even after some Republicans on the Foreign Relations Committee voiced doubts about his temperament.
According to an official on the committee, most of the two dozen officials and former officials the senators plan to interview in the next 10 days are thought to have clashed with Bolton, or to have witnessed some of the heated rows for which he earned a reputation in his former job at the State Department. "Most of them are witnesses to some of the controversies we've been talking about," the official said.
President Bush is taking a similar risk in demonstrating Oval Office backing for an embattled congressional leader, Tom DeLay, accompanying him to a public event on board Air Force One at a time DeLay, a fellow Texas conservative, is facing charges of ethics violations.
Meanwhile, the Social Security reform program he has made the priority of his second term is languishing amid lukewarm support from many congressional Republicans, and its merits are being debated by a deeply divided Senate panel.
The most immediate threat to Bush's credibility is the Bolton nomination. Despite complaints that Bolton had tried to bully intelligence analysts and diplomats into changing their assessments of Cuba and North Korea to conform to his political views, the White House was initially confident its nominee would gain quick approval from the Foreign Relations Committee, on which Republicans have a 10-8 majority.
It has not worked out as planned. After a series of accounts emerged of Bolton throwing his weight around and Colin Powell, the former secretary of state, expressed his own doubts, a Republican moderate, George Voinovich, declared he needed more time to make up his mind. Other waverers followed and a vote was put off until May 12.
The committee's chairman, Sen. Richard Lugar, predicted Wednesday that Bolton would eventually secure approval. But in the meantime, the committee is going to use its time to talk to more of his former colleagues at the State Department and the CIA.
The congressional official confirmed to the Guardian that the senators would interview John McLaughlin, the newly retired CIA deputy director, and John Wolf, a former assistant to Bolton in the State Department's nonproliferation bureau. McLaughlin is said to have intervened in 2002 to stop Bolton from forcing the transfer of the top national intelligence officer on Latin America, Fulton Armstrong, who had disagreed with him about Cuba. Wolf is said to have opposed another personnel transfer ordered by Bolton, of a State Department nonproliferation expert, Rexon Ryu, with whom he had clashed.
Other witnesses will include former and serving officials with knowledge of two other confrontations involving Bolton -- with a State Department germ warfare expert, Christian Westermann, about allegations Bolton wanted to make against Cuba; and with Melody Townsel, a former aid worker who accused Bolton -- then a private lawyer -- of "acting like a madman" and chasing her down a corridor, throwing things at her, in a Moscow hotel in 1994.