Corruptions, A Novel of Washington

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Chapter 8


“Hi. Ed Matthews to see Alexis Chase, please.”

The receptionist smiled and picked up the phone. “Please have a seat while I see if she’s back there.”

“Thanks.” I stood, preferring to stay on my feet given the many hours spent sitting at my desk, at hearings, or in meetings over the course of a week. Turning around in the cramped space, I glanced at the reading materials in the dark brown, institutional bookcases against the walls. It was the typical innocuous mix of law books and reference materials that litter every Congressional office; no Portnoy’s Complaint, Huckleberry Finn or other potentially controversial works on display, lest some constituent or other get offended. No one ever complained just because the books were boring, so boring they would be.

It still being only early April, the office was relatively quiet. Capitol Hill offices move more slowly in the early months of the year, with lobbyist visits not as common as they would be later on, and visitors from back home not showing up until late spring or summer. It was the right time for someone like me, though, to get my face in front of people and test out what they were planning for the year. I needed to know what they wanted and how to help them out, as well as lay out my own needs and see how much they’d be willing to do. It was one of my favorite times of year, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs in offices around town and seeing who’d follow them to the end. It was one of the things I was best at.

The office for Rep. Toby Kelton, House Foreign Operations Subcommittee member and Alexis’s new boss, was on the fourth floor of the Longworth House Office Building. Alexis had followed up on my lead, and landed the job. Toby was grateful to find someone smart, talented, and good-looking enough that lobbyists would never mind getting fobbed off on her when Toby just didn’t feel like seeing them. Alexis, according to her very grateful phone call and nice note, was delighted to be working for someone who took her seriously and had her working in an area she loved.

This was my first visit since she’d gotten the job, a day to figure out whether her gratitude was just that, or if she felt she owed me anything and just how much that might be.

As the heavy wooden back-office door opened, Alexis appeared smiling, happy to see me despite this being just a drop-by. She waved to me. “C’mon back,” she said, leaning against the weight of the door. As I took the door, she turned to head to her desk, the pleats on her knee-length skirt swaying as she did, her long, lovely legs running down to conservative navy pumps that matched the skirt and offset the yellow in her sweater. Much more appropriate dress for Kelton’s office, I thought, but still incredibly attractive.

“Gee, you look different somehow,” I offered cautiously.

She glanced back at me. “When in Rome,” she smiled. Great dimple on that right side. “Your advice worked. Most of the other girls who interviewed with Toby came in the way I looked that day outside HFAC.”

We reached her desk, like the rest a tiny cubicle with a too-large desk crammed into it. She swung around to face me, her skirt whirling again as she did. I kept my eyes on her face. “On the other hand, I’ve gone deep into debt buying an entirely new wardrobe.”

I laughed. “Well, it’s working.”

She blushed. “So what’s up?” she said, sounding all business for the moment.

“I just wanted to check in on the deadline for Committee requests, and see if there’s anything I can do to help.”

“Oh, and you don’t need anything in the letter?”

Okay, she passed the first test: never trust a lobbyist. “Well, as you know, before you came on board here Toby told Michael he would put in some report language on Famagusta for the Greece-America Association – that’s one of ours.” Not one that I ever worked on, I failed to add, but that was okay, I was just using it as a conversation starter. As she nodded, I continued. “And then there’s the stuff Toby hasn’t shown any interest in supporting: Koliba, the Dungan, military aid for Africa” – here she winced – “and our efforts to get MNNA status for the UAE.”

“MNNA?”

Good, another test passed. There was no way she’d have heard about that program in her past job or, since we were the only people going for it, this one either. Most staffers, though, preferred to fake their way through conversations like this, and then ask someone more senior what the hell we were talking about. It could be the boss’s staff director, or the Subcommittee staff, or even people like me: after you’ve built up enough trust with people, they call you all the time looking for explanations of all the arcane and absurd programs too small for most people to notice. It was a call I never wanted to duck, because it told me what my peers and often my opponents were up to, making it easier to balance my strategies against everything else in the bill.

“Major Non-NATO Ally, MNNA, a DOD program to provide excess defense articles to key countries around the world. It started with Israel and Egypt a decade or so back, and has since expanded to a bunch of countries. It’s mostly for show, though, since the foreign recipients come in last on the list after the Reserves, the Coast Guard, and state governments. By the time you get to the bottom of that list, there ain’t much left.”

That wasn’t the full story, given the plans to excess the ARCHON to the UAE. But this was only a test, since I’d be using Will Richardson on that amendment in Conference; so I figured it was enough information for now.

She was scribbling as I spoke, and frowned down at her notes. “So why?”

“The status thing matters to a lot of countries.”

“That’s it? Status? That’s all they want?”

“Like I said, the political and regional status issue is pretty big in the Middle East – you know, the way they’re always arguing who’s closest to Uncle Satan,” I replied. “Especially in the smaller Middle East potentates which, to be frank, could probably be taken over in a couple of hours by six well-armed guys in a Hummer.”

She smiled, but looked skeptical, glancing down at her notes again. I couldn’t help noticing her profile, and her sweater in profile. Wow, Peter is one very lucky guy, I thought.

“Okay, well, I understand what you’re doing, but…” She paused for a moment, apparently thinking through her options. “It’s pretty lame.”

I laughed out loud. I’m going to like working with this woman, I thought, even more than I’d expected to. “Sorry,” I said, still chuckling despite the surprise in her face. “There aren’t a whole lot of people up here who would say it flat out like that. It’s refreshing. How is it lame?”

“Singling out an Arab country? A non-foreign aid recipient? Just for show?” She stopped, looked at me, and after a moment shrugged her shoulders with a grimace.

She had a point, I realized; it was lame. Not only was she the second person to tell me that, but worse, when she put it the way she did, it didn’t even pass the smell test. This is the good thing about talking with new people every once in a while, I thought; they see right through you and don’t swallow your bullshit so easily. I made a mental note to take this up with Weller. Not an urgent note, just a note. But how to respond?

“Show, as you call it, has tremendous value in that part of the world,” I responded. “Policy, demonstrated by decisions like this, is often more important than action.” Not bad, I thought, for having been completely unprepared for the question.

“Well, all right, that, yes, but Toby’s got a few important constituents who always wonder what the Israelis think.” Like that’s a surprise, I thought. Who didn’t, what with AIPAC so deep in everyone’s shorts that there really weren’t any Congressmen left you could call ‘pro-Arab’?

“Not a problem. First off, the Israelis are on board, and we’ve got people who can validate that.” I’d have to get Weller to find those people, but I knew we could find somebody somewhere who could validate it before Conference – that was months away. “Since we’re not putting it in the House bill, we don’t need anything at this point.” Now it was my turn to pause. “Although a private friendly chat with the Chairman during Conference would help.”

Here it was, the purpose of the meeting. I needed to know if she’d be willing to help me despite her first instincts, not so much for this year’s Conference – like I said, I had Will Richardson for that – but just to know. It would tell me what kind of staffer she could be, and would have a big impact on my strategies with her going forward.

Most staffers in Washington are chickens, too afraid to do anything that might not be easy and obvious. ‘Greektown’s in my boss’s district, so we support the Greeks and hate the Turks no matter how stupid they are.’ ‘We get half a million from the Jewish community every election cycle, so we love Israel and wouldn’t get caught dead helping Arabs.’ ‘We’ve got a state university campus in the district, so we’re peace-loving human rights champions and hate all them dictators you’re working for.’ Cut and dry, open and shut, life was all black and white for most Washington people. It was the other ones I was always in the hunt for.

Alexis was thinking, staring blankly at her notes, pen tapping slowly on her desk. I waited.

“Israel is definitely on board?”

“Yes.” That I was sure of – Weller was very focused when he reported that Israel’s government had no objection to this. The Israeli lobby, I was a hell of a lot less sure, but she hadn’t asked that. So I made another mental note: Tom would need to find me a Big Jew – one of those political heavyweights, former Presidents of national Jewish groups, people like that – willing to support the amendment. It wouldn’t be hard, since so many had moved to the far right in keeping with Israel’s political leadership, and Tom had taken pains to cozy up with them. For now, though, I’d let it go if I could.

“And the democracy advocates?”

I laughed, impressed again. She wasn’t letting anything sneak by. “There’s nothing here to bite your boss in the ass. No disgruntled group of immigrants from the UAE living in your district. None of the district’s major employers have problem contracts with them, and a few have some nice fat export markets and might even be grateful – I’ll get you a list of those. And while no human rights group will ever say it supports a Middle East potentate, the UAE generally doesn’t jail people wildly, has appointed women to the admittedly weak Parliament, and has all the power but doesn’t use it to squash people. The democracy twinks don’t pay much attention to them.”

She laughed. “Hey, I said democracy advocates, not twinks.”

“For the record, yes, you did. And off the record, we can have lunch some time to discuss why ‘weenies’ and ‘twinks’ are much more appropriate descriptors.”

She laughed again. “I’ll look forward to that. In the meantime, I need to talk this through with the Congressman, but I think we can probably do something private with the Chairman when the time comes.”

Ka-ching.

“Thanks. I appreciate it.” I did, too. She’d taken the meeting, she’d listened seriously to my idea, talked it through with me rather than just taking it under advisement, and had come to a decision. No muss, no fuss. The best kind of meeting you can have. At some point, if I couldn’t get it resolved, I’d have to come back and tell Alexis about my Karen Jameson problem, that student locked away in a UAE jail, but for now, I’d gotten exactly what I wanted.

* * *

“Did you have to do that to Kevin?” Charlotte glared at me, stamping her foot for emphasis, hands on her hips. The effort was wasted, though, given the thin smile tugging at her lips. She was certainly annoyed, but not so much that was pissed at me; after all, she knew the game as well as I did.

“Honey, c’mon, I had the guy ask one lousy question,” I replied, looking up at her from the floor. I was pretty defenseless, cereal bowl in one hand, spoon in the other, the Post splayed across my lap. Geez, I thought, what a whiner; I’d given him a question that he should have been happy with.

I’d gotten in late the night before, coming from a very long dinner at Sam and Harry’s with Michael and some Russian industrialists that he was hoping to rope in as clients. At least, ‘industrialists’ was what they called themselves; they looked and acted more like the Russian mafia, and seemed unimpressed with our careful explanations that no matter how much they paid us, and whether or not they paid it in cash, we wouldn’t be able to absolutely promise that the U.S. Government would provide loan guarantees for the crazy hotel-and-train project they were promoting for the southern Caucasus. As far as I’d been able to tell, they were looking for us to tell them how to buy enough members of Congress to secure what they wanted; but, in our brief bathroom conversation, Michael refused to let me explain that, ever since Jack Abramoff scampered off to minimum security prison, we’re back to the old ways of doing things, where you ‘rent’ members of Congress through political donations rather than purchase them outright.

Charlotte, in the meantime, had used the free evening for dinner with Kevin, so they could catch up over old times and complain about new ones. Apparently I was one of Kevin’s complaints.

“You realize that, if he’d had any balls, he would have told me to fuck off, right?” Then again, I thought, I only go to him because I know he’s basically a eunuch.

“He told me that you browbeat him into it,” she continued, stamping the foot again. She was still smiling, though.

“Sweetie, I’d hardly call it browbeating, and besides it was three-and-a-half weeks ago,” I answered, “so what’s his problem now?”

“The three meetings he’s had since the hearing. Two visitors to his office, one from Shaddock Mills, and one from GE – which I didn’t know, but is the biggest employer in his district.” Holy shit, I thought to myself. “And then, an invitation to meet with a national security staffer on Cheney’s staff.”

“Whoa.” That was one hell of a breadcrumb I’d thrown out.

She broke into a large grin. “Is that the best you can do? You sent up a trial balloon, Kevin gets smacked around by someone on Cheney’s staff, and ‘Whoa’ is all you’ve got?”

“Shit,” I continued, realizing as I said it that it wasn’t much of an improvement. I looked up at her. “I set something off here, didn’t I?”

“Uhhh, yeah,” she responded. “At least Kevin thinks you did.”

“What did he tell them all?”

“Nothing,” she said. “He told them it was an issue of interest to the Congressman. They spent an hour telling him what a vital, strategic ally Kazakhstan is and how important they are to U.S. security interests in the region.”

“GE?”

“Yeah, he picked up on that too,” she laughed. “Their answer was a rather glum ’commercial and security interests’ in the region.”

“Is Kevin okay?”

“Yes, but.” She paused. “Leave him alone for the rest of the year, will you? You totally flipped him out, and if his boss ever knew all this, Kevin would be screwed.”

Oh, great, I thought, he’s too stupid to tell his boss.

I glanced down at my wilted Special K for a moment, trying to decide how to phrase my answer. Using people was the nature of the business in Washington – the rule being, you use everybody – and I couldn’t just drop people randomly off the list because they were my friends, or Charlotte’s friends, or both. One of my skills was knowing how far I could or couldn’t go, and even before this, I’d had Kevin down for just that one lousy favor all year – I’d already checked him off the list.

Besides, I smiled to myself, I value my life, along with my marriage, so I’d best let this one go.

“Okay,” I said quietly. I dipped my spoon into the bowl, and took a very large spoonful of desperately soggy cereal. Chewing on it more for show than because I needed to, I swallowed after a few moments. “I’ll leave him alone.” Pause. “For the rest of the year.”

She’d started to turn after ‘alone,’ heading back to the kitchen to get her coffee. She stopped, glaring back at me for a moment, and smiled again. “Thanks.” Turning, she walked out of the room.

* * *

Wellington was already at QC’s when I arrived, and had a table. I needed to pick his brain, and had arranged to meet for drinks somewhere away from the office.

I’d picked QC’s to ensure us a little privacy: Michael would never be caught dead in a bar like this one, surrounded by Washington’s young professionals and wannabees, the nubile young women and their ruddy male pursuers, joking, laughing, drinking, talking, and drinking some more in a sea of hormones, engaged in Washington’s second most vital industry, the endless circle of lust, sex and, occasionally, love that bursts through the city and feeds a never-ending loop of coupling and decoupling, real and imagined, legal and illicit. Around 5:30 p.m. every weekday, bars all across Washington fill up as they undergo the nightly shift from watering hole to meat market. For the younger set in offices anywhere near Connecticut and L, QC’s is the place to be.

Of course, Weller normally wouldn’t be caught dead in place like this either, and was here only thanks to my insistence on this location. With his full head of white hair and his patrician manner, he looked utterly lost amidst the crowd. His glare was appropriately baleful as I sat, so I assumed he had been waiting for some time – several minutes at least, an eternity for him in such a place. “Draw in any babes yet, Wellster?” I smiled at him.

“Please,” he groaned, “these girls are my granddaughter’s age. And they’re all drinking like fish.” Wellington was another of Washington’s many recovered, or as he would have said recovering, ‘since you never really recover,’ alcoholics. Somewhere around 20 percent of official Washington by my guess, at least in his age cohort. My generation had gotten it down to about 15 percent or so. The other five percent were all serious drug users, but at least we had the alcoholism rates down.

“Speaking of drinking –” I looked around for the waitress, because I needed a drink at this point. As usual, she was across the jam-packed room, delivering a trayful of drinks to a particularly boisterous crew, ducking forward and back from the table, getting a drink in and safely back again just before an unconscious boob waved a hand in her face or stood up and knocked her over. Lori? Linda? Not that it mattered: I went there often enough for lunch that the waitresses knew me, and tipped well enough that they remembered my drink, Johnny Walker Black and water. I caught her eye, and waved. She nodded briefly, and then ducked back in under an arm to deliver someone else’s drink.

“So, this is fun.” It was Wellington, taking a slow sip from his iced tea and continuing to stare at me.

I looked at him for a moment. This wasn’t going to be easy, but I needed to get some advice and to slap him around a little to find out what our UAE was truly about. For all the crap I gave him, he was the epitome of the old-style lobbyist. With his patrician look and his stories about the grand old days of American foreign policy, Wellington was a mentor of sorts, someone I could trust, someone I could talk to, especially about Michael. And I was going to need a tremendous amount of help dealing with Michael.

“My client, the Dungan. I need to know what you think.”

I had him. Wellington’s eyes narrowed just a touch, and brought one hand to his chin. They must train them that way in State Department School or something, they all do it; usually it’s a way of saying, ‘I am thinking, please do not disturb me, I have to remember the official policy position on this issue,’ but tonight it was sheer surprise. This didn’t seem to be what he’d been expecting.

“You’ve kept them to yourself, haven’t talked about them much.” He looked up at me. “And Michael doesn’t talk about them at all.”

Well, that was news. Michael must still be pissed at me, despite his denials, I thought. He used Weller the same way I did, as a sounding board, because Wellington knew every story in Washington and always saw something you’d missed.

“Start at the beginning.”

I told him, the whole story, from the call from Belinda, Harry’s handoff in his outer office, to the conversation over drinks at the Willard, the fight with Michael, the Chicago trip, the question Kevin asked for me, and the results, three meetings beating him up on Kazakhstan. By the time I finished, Weller was staring down at his iced tea.

“Something’s wrong,” he said.

“Yeah, I know, Michael’s still planning to kill me.”

“No … well, yes but…” he stumbled. He looked off toward the door, recapitulating the story in his head, tapping his finger in the air as if counting the steps. “That’s not what I mean. There’s something wrong with their story.”

“Wellington.” I paused, staring at him, waiting until I had his attention. “We work for Ernest Koliba. We take money from a completely ineffective group of Greek-Americans that only hired us so that they can tell their members they’re fighting the good fight against those Turkish bastards. Of course there’s something wrong with their story. That’s the business, for Chrissakes.”

He looked over his glasses at me. “This is different.”

“They’re not trying to overthrow the government, they’re not opposed to U.S. policy, they’re not looking for anything but some statement of support for internal freedoms within Kazakhstan. They want some lousy report language. Jesus.” To slow myself down, I reached for my scotch, but it was nowhere to be seen. Shit, I thought, it’s Lori, Lori’s the slow one. “Besides, that’s not my question – I want to know what you think about Michael’s reaction.”

“Well then, junior, you’re asking the wrong question.” He leaned in at me, and I leaned back, surprised; that was totally unexpected. “If you can’t convince me that they’re clean, that there’s something more that they want for $360,000 – you’re not going to convince me there’s not something wrong here. And that means you’ve got Michael risking his business on a deal he doesn’t understand.”

My scotch arrived, and I seize on the distraction to look up. “Thanks, Lori,” I smiled, and she smiled back. At least I was right about something.

Weller wasn’t letting me off the hook. “What’s Harry get out of this?”

“Nothing.” My eyes narrowed instinctively – he was entering dangerous turf. A lot of people had gone down in recent years for cutting deals with family members, or best friends. That wasn’t the way I played the game. “Harry gets nothing out of this.”

Weller shook his head and sighed. “I don’t mean money, you idiot. I mean, what does he get out of it? Why’d they go to him? Who does he know? What’s this Dungan mean to him?”

My breathing sped up, and I could feel my frustration building. I wasn’t getting what I needed here. “I said nothing, he’s got nothing in play here. He turned them over to me, and walked away. He was helping me out.” I could feel the red in my face, and the tension in my voice, but I didn’t like where this was going at all. Harry hasn’t asked for anything, I told myself.

Yet.

“Hey, lighten up. Maybe you’re right. Maybe he’s got nothing in play.” Weller was using his calming voice, the senior statesman voice developed over the decades. Even though I recognized it, it was working, the tension releasing, except for the small knot in the pit of my stomach.

Weller took a long sip from his iced tea. Scanning my face, he continued. “So, what else is happening?”

A sense of relief washed over me: he’d just given me an out. “Oh, thanks for the reminder. We’ve got some serious problems with the UAE amendment.” That got his attention: his eyes narrowed. “First off, there’s the story we’re using to sell the amendment – it’s not good enough. And we’ve got to get some kid out of jail.”

“Jail?”

“You remember, the one named at the Rice hearing, Karen Jameson, that students arrested while walking through the lobby of the Hilton,” I answered. “Her parents are raising holy hell in Congress. You’ve gotta talk to Fawzi about her, to see how we can get her released, or at least get me some more information about what she’s supposed to have done.” I lifted my Scotch, but stopped. “I need something to work with, the sooner the better.”

“People in dragnets are seldom just caught up,” he smiled thinly. Gotta love ex-spooks; they never rattle. “But I’ll look into her case.” He looked down, swirling his iced tea. That was all he was ready to tell me.

“And the story?”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“I tried it out, on a skeptic. It doesn’t fly.” I took a gulp from my glass, and grimaced. That’s right, I thought; he’s drinking the iced tea. “It doesn’t hold up, the idea we’re going through all this rigmarole because it makes them feel good. People aren’t buying it.”

“Who’s not buying it?”

“People. People on the Hill. Me people: I don’t buy it. It sounds stupid when I say it and, as two different people said to me, it’s lame. They’ve got to have a better reason than that.”

“I’ve told you all that I can.” That’s a strange way to put it, I thought. I looked over at him, at his now-poker face, the that’s-all-you’re-gonna-get-so-whaddaya-gonna-do-about-it? face. No wonder I like Weller, I thought, he doesn’t bullshit around telling you a load of crap, some new story to cover up the one that just fell apart. He just leads you to water to see if you’ll drink.

“You got someone else who can give me more?”

His face quivered. Gotcha. “Well,” he said, glancing down into his empty iced tea glass, as if maybe there was someone down there, “well, I might have someone…”

I waited. Nothing. Those last bits of melting ice must be tremendously interesting, I thought. “Fawzi?”

He looked up. “Fawzi. But he’s back in the UAE. How soon do you need this?”

“Soon,” I repeated, “at least in terms of talking to Fawzi. It’s not just that I need the information, I need to know if the story’s any good and how I can spin it.”

“I’ll set something up.” He reached behind him for his coat, and then looked at me, waiting. I nodded. He stood, ready to go, suddenly eager to get away it seemed, and then stopped. “The Kazakh thing. Kazakhstan’s not a country to be playing games with. There’s too much going on there: they’re all over the war on terror, they’re stable, and they’re friendlies. To top it off, they have Shaddock, Mills working for them, and those guys own people all over State and the White House as well as the Hill. And that’s not even counting the oil companies out there working on their behalf.”

None of this was news to me. “Jesus, Weller, all they want is some lousy statement putting Congress on support of human rights in Kazakhstan.” Looking away for a moment, I waved to Lori for the check. “You know, ‘don’t oppress the little beebles,’ shit like that. It’s a simple gig.”

“That’s why I’m worried.” Wellington grimaced. “It’s too simple a gig.”

The knot in my stomach tightened.

* * *

The following Tuesday, I arrived at 419 Dirksen, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing room, somewhere about forty minutes after the hearing had started. Michelle had saved me a seat and, luckily enough, the people standing by the back walls of the room had let her. I smiled a ‘thanks’ to her, but she was clearly somewhat put out. I looked at her quizzically, and she leaned in to me.

“Nice of you to make an appearance,” she whispered.

“Sorry, delayed at lunch.” Sorry? Well, not really, since I’d been on a working lunch and knew she was here. I wasn’t sure what her problem was, until she reached over and dumped a pile of five thick statements, each from one of the witnesses, onto my lap. I glanced over with a smile, and, as I tuned in to the questioning, began flipping through the statements for anything vaguely relevant to our clients.

This was a reasonably important hearing, the annual military aid hearing, and I was actually sorry my lunch had gone long. This was one of the few hearings every year where everyone involved in getting or giving military aid showed up, so you could pick up some decent information from the gathering crowd – rumors about who was trying to earmark money for their clients, what countries the Administration was most focused on helping out this year, etc. In the old days, it was a great opportunity for picking up important pieces in the puzzle of what the Administration was up to; these days, post 9/11, it’s only important in learning about the ‘open’ programs, as opposed to the newer and much, much bigger programs hidden throughout the DOD budget in the War on Terrorism.

Above all else, 9/11’s biggest effect on government was the dramatic increase in Department of Defense involvement and control of foreign policy in response to the dramatically changed threat map of the globe. Obviously, the collapse of the Soviet Union had made such a change, but that was in creating an absence – an absence of threat. 9/11 was the opposite – lots of threat, spread across the globe, in a form we were totally unprepared for, and the Pentagon ran itself ragged trying to respond. The results had been varied: base agreements, secret prisons, extraordinary renditions, etc., but the money had all been very, very green, and there’d been lots of it flowing. The thing was, just like all those NSA folks listening in on our phone calls, it was all classified. So nobody knew how much, for what, or where.

That made most of us spend hearings like these thinking, ‘Gee, if they’re spending $20 million openly in North Africa, how much are they slipping under the table?’ Still, the questions Senators asked could tell you a lot about what Committee members wanted to do and why, even if the answers weren’t worth much any more.

Like any Congressional hearing, though, to get to the questions you had to get through the testimony. And, as the pile on my lap quickly reminded me, this was a particularly boring set of witnesses, five of them fighting each other to find the most stultifying way to describe U.S. military assistance policy around the globe. State and DOD officials are truly masters at taking a very long time to say absolutely nothing, and today was no exception. They’d probably only gotten to the Q&A in the last ten minutes or so.

Poor Michelle. I almost felt bad for her. Almost.

“Mr. Secretary, I’d like to turn to a part of the world that has a lower profile than some of those you’ve been focusing on.” That was an interesting opening ploy – kind of like telling the guy, ‘I have a question you’re not prepared for.’ I looked up from my reading, and leaned out into the aisle – it was Sen. Burlingame, Republican of Illinois. “You are no doubt aware of the case of Karen Jameson, the University of Illinois student currently being held in a prison in the Middle East?”

Oh, shit, I thought; that’s right, Rep. Fairchild, the one who went after the Secretary Rice in the House hearing, he was from Illinois too. As I shifted, trying to get a better look at the crowd, Michelle glanced up from her doodling with a quizzical look. “What’s up?”

“Nothing,” I replied quietly. “Just checking for her parents.”

“Whose parents?”

Damned kids, scarcely ever listened to the fucking hearings. Always drove me crazy, but I could yell at them all day long and they’d still end up doodling, or reading, or doing Sudoku. I shook my head in annoyance, refusing to go through that argument for the umptiumpth time.

And there they were. Third row, on the right side of the hearing room, the mother leaning on her husband, her shoulders shaking ever so slightly. They were serious about this, and they knew what they were doing. The first time they showed up it was that early House hearing with the Secretary of State, so they’d get on TV. This time, they were showing up in a more focused venue, indicating their plans for anyone paying attention: they were seriously working the process to put pressure on the UAE. Either these people were smart, or they’d hired someone very, very good.

Well, I thought, at least I’ve got Weller working on it.

The Pentagon and State Department witnesses were both leaning back, listening to an aide who’d come up between them from out of the third row and was whispering furiously. I could see the Pentagon witness’s face, and he looked completely baffled – whatever he was being told was entirely new to him. That, combined with the fact that the only guy who could explain it to him had been sitting in the third row, meant that the administration wasn’t taking this seriously. That is something we’re going to have to fix, I told myself.

It was the State Department witness, Under Secretary Paul Brownley, who replied. “If I might answer this, Senator, I believe that this is a question that relates more to the Emirates’ internal judicial process and to the War on Terror than to our military relationship with the country.”

“We may have a disagreement on that, Mr. Secretary, but please, I look forward to your response.” He wasn’t letting the Pentagon off that easy.

“As you may know, Senator, the State Department has spoken with the Government of the UAE to discuss the conditions under which Karen…” Here he paused for a moment, glancing down to where he’d scrawled her name. “Jameson, Karen Jameson, is being held. We have also requested the opportunity to review the evidence in this case. As you know, Senator, she has been detained for aiding and abetting a terrorism suspect, and the Government has indicated that they believe she was affiliated with a member of Al Qaeda.” He paused, thinking he’d hit a nerve: no one wanted to be caught supporting someone affiliated with Al Qaeda. “We are continuing to track this case, and we are continuing to urge the government to ensure that she is treated fairly and that justice is served.”

The Senator shook his white mane, glanced down at his notes, and then put them aside. “Well, Mr. Secretary, I guess I would be a little concerned about the idea that Karen Jameson was affiliated with Al Qaeda is she had been in the country more than ten hours when she was summarily dragged off to jail, and if there was anything that connected her to the suspect other than the fact that she walked by him passing through the lobby of her hotel when the police stormed the place and arrested everyone there.”

“Senator, I…”

“No, no, Mr. Secretary, we are under the five-minute rule and I believe that I lost one or two while you consulted with staff. So perhaps I will get right to the point.” Again he paused, this time looking over at the Jamesons before continuing. “I believe that the problem in your answer is the claim that the Department wants Karen Jameson treated fairly. The way that she was arrested was patently unfair. The judicial procedures that have taken place so far – justifying the government’s decision to keep everyone arrested that day in prison pending trials that may be two years off – are patently unfair. There are a broad range of citizens who were mistreated that day and are still being mistreated. Only one of them is a citizen of the United States, however, so there is only one case on which I expect prompt, firm action by the Department. That is the case of Karen Jameson. Otherwise, this Congress may need to act in some way, Mr. Secretary, to ensure that the Government is paying attention.”

Burlingame glanced down at his notes again, and looked up, directly at the Jamesons. He breathed in deeply through his nostrils, and then breathed out, another of his trademarked moves. “I believe my time has expired.”

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