Note to Tatiana Gfoeller, U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan: If you ever tire of the Foreign Service — or get drummed out — there may be a reporting job for you.
WASHINGTON — Note to Tatiana Gfoeller, U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan: If you ever tire of the Foreign Service — or get drummed out — there may be a reporting job for you.
Gfoeller, a career diplomat who speaks six languages — seven, if you count English — is the author of a leaked diplomatic cable about Britain’s Prince Andrew that made headlines in London because she said the conversation at a brunch the prince shared with diplomats in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, two years ago “verged on the rude.”
Among the prince’s targets, Gfoeller reported, were the French, whose penchant for corruption, in the prince’s opinion, was nearly as great as the Kyrgyz government’s, and the Americans, whose ignorance of geography placed them in a category definitely inferior to his own countrymen.
But it isn’t just the prince’s indiscretions that make Gfoeller’s account so worthy of notice; Andrew isn’t a diplomat, after all, and as the second son of Queen Elizabeth II, he isn’t likely to be king of England, either. Rather, it’s the rollicking way Gfoeller tells the tale, filled with verbatim quotes, witty observations and attention to setting the scene.
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So detailed is the account that a blogger at a website called Disappeared News suggested she must have been wearing a wire.
To wit: After one businessman complained to the prince about being “harassed and hounded by Kyrgyz tax authorities,” Gfoeller wrote, “The prince reacted with unmitigated patriotic fervor. … ‘A contract is a contract,’ he insisted. ‘You have to take the rough with the smooth.’ “
After other businessmen complained about having to pay bribes to Kyrgyzstan’s president’s son, “Prince Andrew took up the topic with gusto. … ‘All of this sounds exactly like France,’ ” she quoted the prince as saying, noting that “at this point the Duke of York laughed uproariously.”
When the brunch already had exceeded its allotted time, “The prince looked like he was just getting started.” When the prince slammed British anti-corruption investigators, “His mother’s subjects seated around the table roared their approval.” When he attacked journalists, “The crowd practically clapped.” When he let loose with what Gfoeller called another “zinger,” “castigating ‘our stupid British and American governments’ for their lack of planning, there were calls of ‘hear, hear’ in the private brunch hall.”
China envoy “flustered”
Gfoeller’s descriptive skills also are on display in another WikiLeaks cable, this one recounting a February 2009 meeting with China’s ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Zhang Yannian, at which Gfoeller raised allegations China had tried to scuttle America’s lease of a military base that’s critical to U.S. operations in Afghanistan.
“After opening pleasantries, the ambassador mentioned that Kyrgyz officials had told her that China had offered a $3 billion financial package to close Manas Air Base and asked for the ambassador’s reaction to such an allegation,” she wrote, referring to herself and Zhang both as “the ambassador.”
“Visibly flustered, Zhang temporarily lost the ability to speak Russian and began spluttering in Chinese to the silent aide diligently taking notes right behind him. Once he recovered the power of Russian speech, he inveighed against such a calumny, claiming that such an idea was impossible.”
Gfoeller pressed the point, and the Chinese changed topics: “Zhang snapped that ‘releasing 17 from Guantánamo is an unfriendly act toward us,’ ” she wrote, a reference to 17 ethnic-Uighur detainees who the U.S. had decided should be transferred from Guantánamo but not returned to China for fear they’d face political repression.
Eventually, the conversation came back to the base and “a $2 billion-plus Russian deal with Kyrgyzstan” that figured in the Kyrgyz government’s temporarily canceling the American lease. Zhang suggested the U.S. “just give” Kyrgyz officials “$150 million per year in cash” and “you will have the base forever.”
“Very uncharacteristically, the silent young aide then jumped in,” Gfoeller recounted. ” ‘Or maybe you should give them $5 billion and buy both us and the Russians out.’ “
“The aide then withered under the ambassador’s horrified stare,” she noted.
Gfoeller’s stories from Kyrgyzstan aren’t the only ones worth reading for something other than their world significance.
Fleeing Iran by horse
Another tale that would have gone unremarked without WikiLeaks is the 2009 saga of the horseback escape from Iran to Turkey of then-75-year-old Hossein Ghanbarzadeh Vahedi, a U.S. citizen, dentist and longtime Los Angeles resident whose U.S. passport had been seized when he was visiting relatives in Iran.
Who exactly wrote the story of Vahedi’s travels isn’t clear, though the decision to classify it “confidential” was made by Doug Silliman, who was the deputy chief of mission, or No. 2, at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara. The account is filled with the kind of detail that puts the reader on the scene.
“At his wife’s urging to visit his parents’ gravesite in Iran, he traveled to Tehran in early May 2008 where he spent four weeks with family and friends without incident,” the report recounts. “However, after clearing customs at Tehran airport on June 6, he heard his name called on the public address system with instructions to report to a separate office. At this office (Iranian) authorities confiscated his passport and told him he would not be leaving Iran.”
After several months, “Vahedi realized that his situation was not going to change,” and he began to plot his escape. “He studied the four most common illegally used routes out of Iran,” and rejected the first three as too risky: stowing away aboard a ship headed to the United Arab Emirates, traveling overland to Baluchistan, a vast region that includes parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, or crossing into Iraq with Iranian religious pilgrims in hopes of hooking up with an American military unit.
“That left only the last option,” the cable says, “over the mountains on horseback from Urmia to the Turkish border.”
No simple journey
The cable recounts his escape in incredible detail. Here’s a truncated version: Vahedi spent weeks hiking in the mountains to prepare for what he knew would be a demanding journey. He then used his California driver’s license as identification at each of the 20 security stops the bus passed through to his rendezvous in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains. After meeting up with his guides, Vahedi, “an inexperienced rider,” “lost his concentration and fell off the horse, tumbling into the woods.”
Eventually, he crossed into Turkey, but that wasn’t the end of the drama. For four days, U.S. and Turkish officials haggled over whether Vahedi, who’d entered Turkey illegally, should be sent back to Iran.
Finally, with the intervention of what the cable called “the embassy’s front office,” Vahedi’s deportation to the United States was arranged. U.S. officials stayed with him, however, until he was safely aboard a U.S.-bound airplane.
“Vahedi told (consular officials) he had never done anything illegal in his life and that he was ashamed to be seen in police custody,” the cable said.