A former U.S. ambassador to South Korea said Thursday that John R. Bolton, President Bush’s choice for U.N. ambassador, might have misled the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about a provocative and controversial 2003 speech on North Korea.
The former ambassador, Thomas Hubbard, also described Bolton yelling and slamming down a telephone on him during a confrontation. It was the latest example of the allegedly confrontational behavior that had helped stall Bolton’s nomination.
Hubbard has spoken with Foreign Relations Committee aides, who are expanding an investigation into Bolton’s background after senators this week postponed a confirmation vote until mid-May.
In a sign of deepening White House concern about the fate of the nomination, Bush defended Bolton on Thursday while addressing a group of insurance agents about Social Security reform. A day earlier, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, traveling in Europe, staunchly endorsed Bolton.
But in a potentially troublesome development for the administration, former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who has had sharp disagreements with Bolton, has been speaking to Republican senators about the nomination, Powell spokeswoman Peggy Cifrino said Thursday.
Although Powell has not taken a public position on the Bolton nomination, his name was absent from a letter sent this month by a group of former Republican secretaries of State and other former officials urging Bolton’s approval as U.N. ambassador. The letter was signed by former chief diplomats James A. Baker III, Henry A. Kissinger and George P. Shultz, among others.
Bolton, who has served since 2001 as undersecretary of State, has been hobbled by opposition to his critical views on the United Nations, his use of U.S. intelligence assessments in high-profile speeches and testimony, and his reportedly harsh treatment of intelligence analysts and others.
In July 2003, Bolton attracted widespread attention with a speech in South Korea in which he leveled repeated personal attacks on North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Some U.S. diplomats feared the speech would lead North Korea to pull out of international talks on its nuclear weapons program.
In testimony last week, Bolton implied that Hubbard, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, had approved of the speech in advance and that he had thanked Bolton for his comments afterward.
But Hubbard, a career diplomat who was Bush’s ambassador to South Korea from 2001 to 2004, contradicted Bolton, saying in an interview that he had not expressed gratitude for the speech and that he had disapproved of it.
“I didn’t approve personally of the tone of the speech, and had urged him to tone it down,” said Hubbard, now retired from the foreign service.
Bolton testified that the night before the speech, Hubbard had “reviewed it one last time and made a few more changes.” After the speech, Bolton testified, Hubbard had praised him.
“And I can tell you what our ambassador to South Korea, Tom Hubbard, said after the speech,” Bolton said under questioning by Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.). “He said: ‘Thanks a lot for that speech, John; it will help us a lot out here.’ ”
Hubbard disputed Bolton’s testimony.
Before the speech, Hubbard said, he had urged Bolton and his staff “to tone it down, on grounds that it would be counterproductive to getting the North Koreans to the negotiating table.”
But Bolton “rejected that suggestion,” Hubbard said.
He said that Bolton did agree to accept some recommendations on factual errors, and on some phrases that Hubbard “thought would be taken badly or misunderstood by the South Koreans.” When he offered thanks, it was for those changes, Hubbard said.
“It’s a gross exaggeration to elevate that to praise for the entire speech and approval of it,” Hubbard added.
Hubbard, who served as U.S. ambassador to the Philippines during the Clinton administration, said he had spoken with several senators and Senate staff members to set the record straight about his views on the Bolton address. His disagreement with Bolton’s testimony was first reported this week on Newsweek’s website.
Chafee, who represents a key vote on the committee as an undecided Republican, has said discrepancies in Bolton’s testimony about the speech bothered him.
In the 2003 address, Bolton described Kim as a “tyrannical dictator” and said life in impoverished North Korea was a “hellish nightmare.” In response, the North Koreans denounced Bolton as “human scum.”
Bolton insisted in his testimony that the speech had been “fully cleared within the appropriate bureaucracy.” He did not specifically identify who had approved the speech.
Charles L. “Jack” Pritchard, the State Department’s former senior expert on North Korea, refused to approve the address because it was “over the top,” Pritchard said Thursday. But former Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage has said the speech was cleared at the State Department.
Hubbard described a separate encounter in which, he said, Bolton berated him for failing to set up a meeting with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, as Bolton had requested.
Hubbard said he told Bolton that seeking a meeting was unwise, because Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly had just met with the South Korean president to convey a message from Bush. In response, Bolton became angry and slammed down the phone to end the conversation, Hubbard said.
Foreign Relations Committee aides are investigating three incidents in which Bolton reportedly sought to remove or reassign intelligence analysts who disagreed with him, and several additional reports of Bolton having confrontations with subordinates. Bolton allegedly lashed out at two analysts for refusing to use their intelligence assessments to support his hard-line views. A third analyst refused to supply intelligence documents sought by Bolton.
Hubbard said his experience was slightly different.
“I was roughly a co-equal with Bolton, so I didn’t feel he was kicking down,” Hubbard said. “He was kicking sideways. But there was some kick in his manner.”
Committee aides responsible for jointly conducting the remaining portion of the investigation of Bolton didn’t agree Thursday on how to proceed. Democrats and Republicans agreed to hold a vote on Bolton’s nomination in May but could not agree on a date.
Republicans are eager to hold a vote as quickly as possible, to get Bolton’s nomination out of the committee and before the full Senate, where they hold a 55-45 majority. Democrats want to hold open the possibility of Bolton returning to testify again before the vote.
The two sides also must agree on which witnesses will be interviewed and on whether to subpoena government officials who do not want to testify out of fear their careers could be damaged by involvement in the nomination battle.
Bush, defending his U.N. nominee Thursday, addressed the confirmation fight in a speech on his Social Security proposals before an insurance group in Washington.
Bush called Bolton “a good man” whose “distinguished career and service to our nation demonstrates that he is the right man at the right time for this important job.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said she saw a concerted campaign for Bolton in the comments by Bush, Rice and others.
“It seems like the White House is making a big push here,” she said.