- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Diplomatic defense

The State Department Monday defended the U.S. ambassador to Albania against congressional charges that he was involved in an attempt to cover up suspected illegal weapons sales to Afghanistan.

“We have no information that would support the idea that U.S. officials were involved in some kind of illicit activity,” spokesman Tom Casey told reporters. “But obviously any allegations made [and] certainly questions raised by the chairman of a major committee in Congress is something that we will be happy to look at.”

Rep. Henry A. Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, released a letter earlier Monday to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice concerning a U.S. government contract with a private firm to provide ammunition for the Afghan army and police force.

The California Democrat is questioning whether a Florida-based firm, AEY Inc., illegally purchased Chinese ammunition, removed the Chinese characters from the packing crates and claimed the ammunition was manufactured in Albania. The owner of the firm and three associates are facing federal prosecution for violating the terms of a $10 million government contract, which prohibited the purchase of Chinese ammunition.

Mr. Waxman said Ambassador John L. Withers II conspired with Albanian Defense Minister Fatmir Mediu to conceal the origin of the ammunition.

Mr. Casey defended Mr. Withers as a career diplomat who has no “political connections or issues to speak of.” The State Department spokesman, meanwhile, questioned how reporters got a copy of the letter about the U.S. ambassador to Albania before Miss Rice, to whom the letter was addressed, even saw it.

Miss Rice received the letter at about 12:30 p.m., as the Associated Press was filing the first story on Mr. Waxman’s charges.

“I somehow think there needs to be a bit of an investigation of the mail service between that particular committee and this building because it does seem that there’s a lot of letters that seem to manage to get into your guys’ hands before they ever make it here,” Mr. Casey said.

Remembering Mackler

The State Department press corps is reeling this week from the sudden death of veteran Agence France-Presse correspondent Peter Mackler, who died of a heart attack Friday at the age of 58.

A talented and indefatigable reporter who helped establish the English-language news coverage in the United States for the Paris-based news service, Mr. Mackler also waswas also a generous and friendly presence in the State Department press room during his stints there as the agency’s chief diplomatic correspondent.

He helped revitalize the State Department Correspondents Association (SDCA) as president, and shocked and saddened comments have poured in from colleagues and competitors alike at the news of his untimely passing.

Sylvie Lanteaume, AFP’s current State Department reporter, alerted her colleagues to the news on Saturday. “Peter Mackler, my beloved editor and our former SDCA president, died suddenly Friday afternoon,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Matthew Lee of the Associated Press added, “He will be sorely missed, not only by AFP, but by all of us who cover State and those he touched around the world.”

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