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Embassy Row

- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 26, 2008

DIPLOMATIC TROUBLE

On Saturday, John L. Withers II will mark the end of his first year as U.S. ambassador to Albania, but he never thought the anniversary would be marred by scandal that could end his diplomatic career.

A veteran Foreign Service officer with a doctorate degree in modern Chinese history from Yale, Mr. Withers now finds himself linked to a shady arms dealer facing federal prosecution as a powerful congressional committee chairman opened an investigation this week.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, accused Mr. Withers of helping to cover up the illegal purchase of Chinese ammunition intended for use by police and military in Afghanistan. The bullet cartridges were bought by a Miami-based Pentagon contractor, AEY Inc., and repackaged to make the ammunition appear to have been made in Albania, according to federal prosecutors and congressional investigators.

The California Democrat also demanded a State Department probe in a letter this week to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The U.S. Embassy in Albania released a statement Tuesday saying the ambassador is confident he will be cleared of any suspicion that he was involved in the arms deal.

The ambassador "is a steadfast believer that a fair examination of the evidence will lead, in the end, to the truth," said the statement posted on the embassy's Web site, http://tirana.usembassy.gov.

"He applies that principle equally to himself and to others in the absolute knowledge that the evidence in this matter, fully presented, will dissolve any and every assertion made against him, his staff or his government."

The State Department's inspector general will also investigate the charges against Mr. Withers.

"When someone has had a cloud placed over them publicly, as Chairman Waxman has done through making these allegations, they deserve to have an independent body take a review of them and come to an appropriate conclusion," said State Department spokesman Tom Casey.

Mr. Withers has not publicly commented on the scandal since Mr. Waxman released his letter to Miss Rice on Monday. However, in an interview with an Albanian newspaper last week, the ambassador said a "very serious investigation" was already under way into the activities of AEY and charges of illegal arms trafficking in Albania.

"There is cooperation between our authorities and the Albanian authorities to get to the bottom of that matter," he told a reporter for the Daily Panorama.

"But rest assured that — as we advise the Albanian government to conduct an inquiry based on evidence and evidence alone and to prosecute whomever and wherever that evidence leads — we are doing the same."

POWDER SCARE

The United States closed its embassy in Sri Lanka on Wednesday after staffers found suspicious powder at the diplomatic mission, which had been closed three other times in the past after similar scares.

"The suspicious substance will be sent to a laboratory for analysis," the embassy said in an e-mail to reporters in the capital, Colombo. "Until the results are received and a determination is made that the substance does not pose health or safety risks, the embassy will be closed to the public."

The embassy did not say whether it feared the powder contained the deadly anthrax bacteria, but anthrax scares have closed several foreign embassies in Sri Lanka since 2001, when the Australian, British, French, Indian and U.S. embassies received letters containing white powder. In each case, the powder turned out to be harmless.

Sri Lanka has been gripped by a 25-year war against separatist ethnic Tamil rebels, who pioneered the tactic of suicide bombings. Lately the army has driven the rebels out of strongholds in the eastern part of the island, leaving them only with control over a small area in the north.

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297, fax 202/832-7278 or e-mail jmorrison@washingtontimes.com.