Veteran foreign-service officer Barbara Bodine’s appointment as a key player in Iraq’s transitional government has angered Defense Department officials and federal law-enforcement authorities who believe that as U.S. ambassador to Yemen, she blocked an FBI investigation into the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.
Working through a number of channels, including the Pentagon, the Justice Department and the Senate, several high-ranking federal authorities are calling on President Bush to rescind the appointment.
Miss Bodine, a “diplomat in residence” at the University of California at Santa Barbara, was named last month by Mr. Bush as director of relief and reconstruction for central Iraq, based in Baghdad.
She served in Baghdad during Saddam Hussein’s regime, later in Kuwait and then Yemen, where she was ambassador from 1997 to 2001. After the Oct. 12, 2000, suicide bombing of the Cole, which killed 17 U.S. sailors and injured 35 others, she served as chief negotiator between the U.S. and Yemeni governments.
“The State Department has successfully imposed Barbara Bodine on the Defense Department team dealing with a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq,” said one former high-ranking Senate official close to the Pentagon. “She is to be the mayor of Baghdad, in essence. The Defense Department is livid, but there seems nothing they can do.”
A Pentagon official, who asked not to be identified, said Miss Bodine dismissed warnings of terrorist attacks in Yemen against U.S. ships and allowed the Cole to enter port at a reduced security level because she felt the value of showing a U.S. presence in Yemen outweighed the risks.
“But she’s never said she was sorry or that she made a mistake,” said the official.
FBI executives and agents familiar with the Cole probe said Miss Bodine, as ambassador in Yemen, prevented the bureau from advancing its investigation into the bombing at a time when agents were beginning to focus on Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden.
The bureau’s top terrorist hunter, John O’Neill, headed the Cole probe and was laying the groundwork for a conspiracy case against al Qaeda more than a year before the September 11 attacks. He had been sent by FBI Director Louis J. Freeh to Yemen with a force of 100 agents, laboratory experts and forensics specialists.
But FBI officials said the Cole investigation was stymied by Miss Bodine and that she made little effort to encourage Yemeni authorities to cooperate. Despite a number of death threats against agents by Islamic terrorists, she refused to allow investigators to carry the weapons Mr. O’Neill considered necessary for their protection.
After Mr. O’Neill left Yemen in August 2001 for New York, Miss Bodine refused to authorize his re-entry visa back into Yemen. His colleagues said he was told by Miss Bodine his investigative techniques were too aggressive and undiplomatic, and it was important for the United States to get along with foreign governments.
FBI officials and others familiar with the Cole probe said Mr. O’Neill believed it was important to show the Yemeni security force the FBI meant business in the Cole inquiry. Once he was denied re-entry, however, they said what little cooperation investigators had seen from Yemeni authorities disappeared.
Now traveling from Kuwait to Iraq with other transition-team members, Miss Bodine was unavailable yesterday for comment.
Mr. O’Neill retired two weeks before the September 11 attacks, telling colleagues the government hindered the Cole probe because it was getting too close to several foreign dignitaries. On Sept. 3, 2001, he took a job as chief of security at the World Trade Center, where he died with thousands of others eight days later.
“There’s no doubt that denying O’Neill access to Yemen significantly limited the Cole investigation, perhaps even killing it” said one key FBI official. “And that decision was made by Ambassador Bodine.”
Mr. O’Neill headed the team that captured Ramzi Yousef in Pakistan in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and led the probe into the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa that resulted in an indictment of bin Laden and 16 al Qaeda associates.
Miss Bodine has spent her career working primarily in southwest Asia and the Arabian Peninsula. She served as deputy principal officer in Baghdad and deputy chief of mission in Kuwait during the Iraqi invasion and occupation in 1990.