Letter from DC: Spies and Petty Bureaucrats

International Intrigue - Local Inanity

By , Columnist

The Washington Metro area once again confirmed this week its ideal setting for international intrigue and the sheer pettiness of its local officials.

It all started with revelations of an alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. that seemed to come straight from a Jim Lehrer novel or a George Clooney movie. 

Suspect Mansour Arbabsiar allegedly told a DEA informant he thought was a conduit to a Mexican drug cartel that he wanted to bomb a restaurant that Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir frequented with hopes of massive collateral damage that would also include DC’s power players.

cafe milano.jpgSpeculation of the chattering classes instantly surmised that the potential target could be Café Milano, the Georgetown version of L.A.’s The Ivy, a see-and-be-seen eatery of Washington’s political elite and visiting celebrity-types in town to “celebvocate” on behalf of their latest cause. 

Just this past Wednesday the American “hikers” -- Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd, and Joshua Fattal -- detained by Iran for “spying” were spotted feasting there on vegetarian pasta as part of their “thank you” tour to pols for aiding in their release.  Café Milano should consider Iranian-inspired cuisine.

It’s been a while since DC was faced with a John le Carre plotline.  America’s state-based enemies -- even the total nut jobs -- realize it’s not in their interest to risk retribution for violating an understood protocol. You got an issue? Take ‘em out somewhere else.

One would have to go back to 1976, when agents of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet set offdel solar car bombing.jpg a bomb in the car of dissident Marco Orlando Letelier del Solar, killing him and his assistant in the heart of Embassy Row on Massachusetts Avenue’s Sheridan Circle.

Despite the sparing of Washington in actual assassination plots, it was a reminder that the only folks that may outnumber lawyers in DC are spies.  That Svetlana from the “Baltic Friendship Council;” an attaché from any embassy; the visiting fellow to the foreign policy think tank; the reporter of some obscure Asian trade journal; any one of them could be a spy.

Yet, unlike James Bond, most spies in DC have a pretty mundane role.  Rather than the jet-setting operative lifestyle requisite with state-of-the art eavesdropping technology and wads of cash to induce betrayal, most spies are paper sniffers and number crunchers. 

Information comes not from the donning of a tuxedo and sipped champagne at the embassy reception, but from poring over every available document one can find to glean hints and then seek confirmation.  Kinda like a journalist or a financial analyst, actually, just with a different master.

One delicious irony of this latest diplomatic ado was its tie-in to the increasing public outrage over banks, embodied by all the “Occupy” movements.  The Justice Department’s smoking gun was two wire transfers of $50,000 each from Iran to a U.S. bank for Arbabsiar to fund his plot.  Well, it was actually two wire transfers of $49,960.  The bank had to take its $40 cut for pushing a button.


While one side of DC was basking in its saga of international intrigue, DC residents were reminded again that even though we are at the center of the political universe, our local officials can be some of your more egregious putzes. 

DC Metropolitan police.jpgAAA Mid-Atlantic officials alerted the media to a spate of arrests by DC Police for folks that had expired tags and car registrations, and even worse, these folks being cuffed and hauled to the pokey were being mirandized in Ward 3, Washington’s affluent and predominately white section.  (The law, which has been on the books since the crack era to offer an additional tool against drug dealers, was never decried in the last three decades.)

The food writer, the mom on her way to pick up her kid at school, and the naval officer picking up take-out all served as symbols of police excess.  The mom’s case was particularly troubling as police reportedly told her that the child riding in the car would be sent to a social services agency until her release.  You want to put the fear of God into any Washingtonian, just mouth “Child Services”….

The DC Police’s explanation?  “MPD officers are sworn to enforce the laws that are on the books…. If you have concerns, please address them with the legislators,” its spokeswoman said. Legislators' reply?  Where’s your freakin’ use of discretion?  Just because you “may” does not mean you “must.”

DC’s zealous use of “rules and regulations,” while more serious, was no less incredulous than our neighbors to the West in Fairfax County, VA.  There, Mark Grapin, a member of the Army National Guard about to be shipped out again to Iraq, was ordered to dismantle a tree house he had built for his kids because it violated zoning ordinances. 

tree house.jpgThis after he checked with the county building department and was told he would not need a permit for the tree house.  After two anonymous complaints, however, the county stepped in citing “Section 10-104 (12C)” of the country zoning code.  Luckily, after being shamed by the exposure of its lunacy, the Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals will reconsider its 4-3 vote in support of making 11 and 9 year old boys cry.

John Kennedy once infamously described Washington a perfect combination of “northern charm and southern efficiency.”  Yet, as the last week has demonstrated, perhaps DC is more appropriately a combination of international parochialism and local sophistication….

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Marc Osgoode Smith has covered – and participated in - Washington DC policy circles for more than two decades as a journalist covering media and as an association and think tank executive. Smith now enjoys his role as a “cultural observer” of DC Politics and the people that engage in them.

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