Hillary Clinton will announce later this week that veteran diplomat Marc Grossman will replace Richard Holbrooke, who died in December, as Special Envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Grossman is an accomplished career diplomat who will do his job in a discreet and reliable way. He’s not a bone-crusher like Holbrooke, but that approach didn’t get the U.S. very far. Maybe a low-key backroom dealer like Grossman will have better luck.
There’s another big difference between Grossman and Holbrooke: if Obama wanted someone who was going to be responsive to administration oversight, which Holbrooke decidedly was not, they are going to get it in Grossman. The best evidence for that comes from the Scooter Libby affair.
Grossman was the number three person at the State Department in May 2003 when Walter Pincus of the Washington Post began asking questions about the 2002 trip of Amb. Joseph Wilson to Niger to investigate claims Saddam Hussein had sought uranium there. Pincus wanted to know whether Vice President Cheney had ordered the trip, and his questions set off alarm bells in Cheney’s office. Libby, who was Cheney’s chief of staff, tried to get details and asked Grossman about the trip on May 29, 2003. Grossman dug up information about it and about the role Wilson’s wife, CIA officer Valerie Plame, played in it, and told Libby about two weeks later. Libby claimed to forget those and more than half a dozen other conversations on the subject, a claim that formed part of the basis for his conviction for obstructing the federal investigation into the leak of Plame’s identity.
In its closing argument in the Libby case, the government detailed Grossman’s role:
I want to start by talking a little bit about Marc Grossman, the first witness you heard from. Mr. Grossman told you — I remind you, the number-three person at the State Department, Under Secretary for Political Affairs — he told you how, on may 29th, outside a Deputies committee meeting, he was approached by Mr. Libby who wanted information about a trip by an ambassador to Niger. He wanted to know what Mr. Grossman knew about that trip. Mr. Grossman didn’t know anything about that trip. He had never heard of it, and it bothered him that he didn’t know about it because here he was being asked by the chief of staff of the vice-president of the United States something which he should have been aware of in his own mind.
So he goes back to the State Department. He tells Mr. Libby he is going to look into it. He digs around and he finds out some information. He finds out that there was an ambassador who went. His name is Joseph Wilson. He went to Niger. He reported back. And Mr. Grossman calls and tells mr. Libby that information that day. Mr. Grossman is not satisfied that he has all the information and wants a report. He wants something on paper. He goes on foreign travel. He comes back. And July [sic] 10th or 11th, he is handed from Carl Ford, from the state department’s Intelligence and Research Branch, what’s been referred to as the I.N.R. memo, dated June 10th.
This memo contained a paragraph which referred to Valerie Wilson, Joseph Wilson’s wife, and indicated that she worked at the C.I.A. and that she had a role in sending her husband, Mr. Wilson, on the trip to Niger. And as you will recall, Mr. Grossman told you that this fact leaped out at him. It was really remarkable to him. He thought it verged on the edge of impropriety. He thought it was somewhat bizarre.
He sees Mr. Libby again within a day or two — most likely June 12th — and he sees Mr. Libby outside, again, a deputies committee meeting, and he tells Mr. Libby, I have some more information for you. I owe you this information. I have looked into it. I have looked into the question that you asked me. And I found out, yes, an ambassador went. It was Joseph Wilson, he did report back. And then Mr. Grossman said another thing. He said, there is something else that you should know. Wilson’s wife works at the agency. She works at the C.I.A. Mr. Grossman thought that this was important that he tell this to Mr. Libby. And why wouldn’t he? He had already been caught short, in his own mind — Mr. Grossman’s mind — not knowing about the ambassador.
He looks into it. He is reporting back to the vice-president’s chief of staff, and he is going to hold back this piece of information? No. He remembers telling this to Mr. Libby. And I suggest to you, ladies and gentlemen, when Mr. Grossman told this to Mr. Libby on June 12th, it was the fourth time in two days that Mr. Libby had been told about ambassador Wilson’s wife. The fourth time.
Grossman didn’t leak any of the information about Wilson or Plame, to the media—his boss Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was the key source for the July 2003 Robert Novak article that outed Valerie Plame’s position at the CIA. Grossman didn’t do anything improper in responding to Libby’s request for information about Wilson—on the contrary, he was doing what a State department official should do in response to a request for information from the White House. One assumes the current White House will get similar deference from Grossman in his new job.
[Disclosure: I had a byline on a July 2003 Time.com piece about the Bush administration’s attempt to discredit Wilson that resulted in a subpoena for Time’s Matt Cooper, which in turn initiated a lengthy battle between Time and the government over access to Cooper’s notes. I was not subpoenaed and none of my notes were released].