US stung again by claims of sabotaging inquest
In March of 1998, with the Cambodian elections approaching, the US Embassy placed a worried call to the FBI.
According to declassified records, Nate Thayer, the correspondent who scored Pol Pot’s final interview five months earlier, was planning to denounce Ambassador Kenneth Quinn as a saboteur of the agency’s investigation into a massacre here on its one-year anniversary.
For Mr Quinn, this latest headache did not come at a good time.
The US Federal Bureau of Investigation’s suspicions of the CPP and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s bodyguards had been exposed once already by The Washington Post, creating the uncomfortable impression that the US was taking sides in what at the time was a country lurching back to stability after 28 years of war and destitution.
But despite its best efforts, the US government could not lower the profile of the hot-potato case. The Bureau had been legally required to deliver a report on the investigation into the hands of anti-Hun Sen lawmakers in Washington who were hostile both to Mr Quinn and to the FBI and who knew that The Washington Post had also accused Mr Quinn of ushering the FBI out of Cambodia to protect Mr Hun Sen.
Despite repeated efforts to present his version of events, the allegations against Mr Quinn stemming from the event of 1997 have persisted ever since.
The grenade attack of that year, which left at least 16 dead and wounded more than 100, had by three months preceded Mr Hun Sen’s military triumph over First Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh in the streets of Phnom Penh, a bloody event that changed the results of the 1993 elections by force of arms and drew a cloud over relations wit the US.
With these events in mind, embassy officials on March 25, 1998, called Ralph Horton, the FBI’s Bangkok Legal Attache who in official records had discussed the investigation in mostly political terms and himself played a key role in stopping the investigation.
Mr Thayer had told the embassy that he was preparing an article for the now defunct Far Eastern Economic Review saying that Mr Quinn “was responsible for stopping the FBI investigation into the 3/30/97 grenade attack in Phnom Penh by ordering the withdrawal of FBI agents prior to the completion of the investigation,” according to Mr Horton’s classified communication of two days later.
Over the telephone, Mr Quinn had “expressed concern about the possible publication of a story which would accuse him of interfering with the FBI investigation.” He “asked if there was anything that the FBI could do to confirm the correct version of events with the publication.”
They agreed that a Bureau representative would call Mr Thayer and tell him he was wrong, that the removal of Special Agent Thomas Nicoletti, the lead investigator, from Cambodia on May 29, 1997, “was the FBI’s decision,” not Mr Quinn’s.
But Mr Thayer would not budge, telling the Bureau “that he had a very good source of information and that he was certain” Mr Quinn had “ordered the withdrawal of the FBI,” according to Mr Horton.
In the event, Mr Thayer’s article, titled “sleuths muzzled,” was brief, under 250 words on an inside page of the April 2 edition.
Contrary to FBI records of prior discussions with Mr Thayer, he had not written about Mr Nicoletti’s May 1997 removal from Cambodia but instead about the US Embassy’s refusal to allow Mr Nicoletti to return a month later to continue the investigation.
Mr Thayer wrote that the US Embassy had “effectively squashed” the FBI probe “apparently out of concern that it would destabilize the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“According to US officials close to the investigation, the agents concluded that only two people could have ordered the attack: Hun Sen or the chief of his bodyguard,” he wrote, noting that the FBI had been expected to return to Cambodia in June.
Cambodian officials including Mr Hun Sen have always denied accusations of involvement or advance knowledge of the attack.
“But the embassy, citing risks to their safety, instructed them not to return, according to the US officials,” Mr Thayer wrote. An embassy spokesman had denied this report, but “privately American officials say the FBI probe was halted because the results, if publicized, would have ‘destabilized’ Cambodia.”
Though not entirely accurate, Mr Thayer’s account appeared to reflect private discontent among some US officials about the end of the investigation.
His article approximately described events that had in fact taken place over 24 hours in June of 1997. According to FBI records, Mr Quinn, the US ambassador, had reacted angrily to “revelations” in a Washington Post article from June 29 claiming that FBI results pointed to Mr Hun Sen’s bodyguards and had as a result denied the FBI “country clearance” to enter Cambodia until the FBI explained the leak.
It was in fact the explosion of violence the following week between the camps supporting Prince Ranariddh and Mr Hun Sen that proved a more immediate barrier to the FBI’s work, which never truly resumed in Cambodia. Mr Thayer did not mention this.
But, while the decision to withdraw Mr Nicoletti, the investigator, did appear to reflect acute political concerns with the FBI, it was not officially the US Embassy’s decision, despite popular belief.
In October 1999, according to an electronic communication, the FBI’s Mr Horton received a telephone call from a reporter saying the agency had abruptly departed Cambodia in 1999 and seeking an explanation, “specifically, whether the US Embassy had withdrawn its support of the FBI’s efforts.”
Mr Horton “replied ‘no comment’ except to say that the US Embassy in Phnom Penh has always been supportive of the FBI’s efforts in the captioned matter.”
However, allegations that Mr Quinn, who reportedly had friendly chats in Vietnamese with Mr Hun Sen, had played a nefarious role in the case have not abated, in particular that he reported threats on Mr Nicoletti’s life, bolstering FBI officials’ arguments for ordering his removal.
Mr Nicoletti and Mr Quinn in 2009 publicly differed on this matter, with Mr Nicoletti, who said he was removed from Cambodia against his will, claiming that both Mr Quinn and Cambodian police had said threats had been made on his life. Mr Quinn denied this.
FBI records indicate that Mr Nicoletti and UN human rights investigators were skeptical that any such threat was genuine, with a UN investigator claiming privately that it was a pretext to end Mr Nicoletti’s work prematurely.
In addition to reports by The Washington Post and Mr Thayer, the claim that Mr Quinn had relayed threats to the FBI was repeated in a staff report from a US Senate committee.
Its authors wrote in 1999 that with “considerable enthusiasm” Mr Quinn had also recounted theories tending to shift blame away from the CPP and Mr Hun Sen.
According to the report, Mr Quinn said it was possible that the grenade attack had been staged by elements among the political opposition or that “someone staged the attack to make it look like Hun Sen and/or the CPP did it.” The authors said neither theory seemed plausible or had been supported by any evidence.
In an e-mail yesterday, Mr Quinn reiterated claims made previously that he had in fact championed the cause of the FBI investigation, demanding that it continue when FBI agents claimed it was complete in May of 1997.
Mr Quinn also said he had intervened to gain Cambodian police cooperation and “it was Amb Quinn who personally went to Takhmau and met with Prime Minister Hun Sen and obtained the prime minister’s authorization for the FBI team to enter Cambodia and begin its work.”
He also said theories that the opposition had staged the attack on itself were first mentioned by Mr Nicoletti. (Mr Nicoletti in 2009 called the theory a “smokescreen” that emerged in a case plagued by partisan leaks to the news media and said “significant” investigative results pointed toward CPP forces.)
Mr Quinn acknowledged that he had informed Mr Nicoletti of a Khmer Rouge radio broadcast that “contained a vituperative attack on the FBI as an organization, but did not include any threat or any mention of any FBI agent by name.”
“I, of course, felt it important for Agent Nicoletti to know about this verbal attack on his agency,” Mr Quinn wrote. “I never received any report about threats against Agent Nicoletti nor did I ever tell him that he was personally targeted. The opposite was true.”
After Mr Thayer’s article appeared, Mr Horton wrote in a May 28, 1998, electronic communication that FBI Assistant Director John Collingwood, the Bureau’s newly minted head of public and congressional affairs, had written to the editors of the Far Eastern Economic Review denying the article’s claims.
Mr Horton again called Mr Thayer and Mr Thayer’s editor, who said the article had been based on “information supporting the contention from a source in the FBI.”
Mr Horton asked that the Bureau’s Honolulu, Criminal Investigative and National Security divisions “determine if any FBI personnel supplied any information to any reporter” that may have given rise to the article.
“Unfortunately,” Mr Horton wrote, “the circumstances have created a perception that the FBI did provide information which was used as a basis of or in support of the article’s contention. This will likely have a chilling effect on the FBI’s ability to work with embassies in future sensitive investigations.”