Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

Notes from different corners of the world.
Sept. 18 1997 3:30 AM

Senate Campaign-Finance Hearings

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       Until now, the hearings have resembled a somewhat confusing political thriller. Today it was a love story. A dozen senators fell hard for a married bureaucrat with a winning smile and a spine of steel.
       The object of the committee's affection was Sheila Heslin, who was a high-level career employee at the National Security Council until she resigned late last year to stay home with her baby son. In 1995 and 1996, Heslin had the misfortune to become the object of a lobbying onslaught orchestrated by Roger Tamraz. Tamraz, you will recall from last week, is the Middle Eastern businessman who gave $300,000 to the Democratic National Committee in the hope that he could get the White House to support, or at least consider, his plan for an oil pipeline stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean. Faced with Tamraz-inspired pressure from the DNC, the CIA, the Department of Energy, and possibly from the White House itself, Heslin budged not so much as an inch.
       Dressed in a simple blue suit and white blouse, adorned by a single strand of pearls, Heslin explained that at the NSC she had been responsible for helping to draft U.S. policy toward the oil resources in the former Soviet republics. It was in this context that she met with Tamraz in June 1995 to hear about his plan for a pipeline that would stretch through Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Turkey. Tamraz told Heslin that he didn't intend to actually build the multi-billion-dollar pipeline, but rather that he hoped to gain exclusive rights to the route for it, so that he could broker a deal for others to build it, cutting himself in for a tidy $125 million commission.
       Heslin thought his plan violated U.S. policy, which was to encourage the rapid development of oil exports from the former USSR without backing any private company's exclusive patent. Moreover, she knew that Tamraz was a figure of questionable reputation, a wanted man in several countries, and notorious with American oil companies for claiming they supported him when they didn't. "Reporting I got from oil companies and U.S. embassies in the field, and the CIA, as well as open sources was very disturbing," Heslin told the committee. "When I met him, those reports were confirmed. He's an extremely smooth character, but he doesn't check out." Heslin indicated to Tamraz--who is scheduled to testify tomorrow--that she wasn't impressed by his plan. She also advised Vice President Gore to cancel a meeting with him, which Gore did.
       What followed was an extraordinary campaign to change Heslin's mind. The first effort was from "Bob" of the CIA, who emerged in the hearings last week in connection with DNC Chairman Don Fowler. It appeared then that the unscrupulous Fowler was pressuring the scrupulous CIA to help a big Democratic contributor. According to Heslin, there was improper behavior all around. Bob, who knew Tamraz from the many years he assisted the agency, was already an advocate, as was his boss in the Operations Directorate, a Mr. Lofgren, who subsequently left the CIA to work for Tamraz, passing through an undercover revolving door. After Bob finally stopped pestering her, Fowler called Heslin to endorse Tamraz. She said she was shocked by this call and reported it to her boss at the NSC, Nancy Soderberg. Soderberg shared Heslin's outrage and told her that what Fowler was doing was illegal. She also said she would make sure he didn't bother her again.
       The most disturbing revelation of the day was about a subsequent call Heslin received from Jack Carter of the Department of Energy, who said he was calling at the behest of White House counselor Mack McLarty. McLarty, Carter said, liked Tamraz and wanted him to meet formally with the president--something that would require her approval. Heslin nearly lost her composure as she recalled that Carter told her Tamraz had given $100,000 to the DNC and that he would give five or six times as much if he could obtain a meeting with the president. The president, he said, was interested in Tamraz's project. When Heslin refused to be moved, Carter told her to quit being a Girl Scout. Carter has denied saying any of these things in a deposition taken by the committee, but he has every reason to lie. Heslin has none. She also has notes from the conversation, which she described as angry and so disturbing that it kept her up nights.
       By the time Heslin got through her story of how the irresistible force of Tamraz's political influence met the immovable object of her incorruptibility and competence, the hearing room was in full collective swoon.
       Lieberman: "You're one of the points of light in an otherwise dark firmament ... a hero and a point of light."
       Collins: "I want to thank you for truthful testimony and for being a true hero."
       Levin: "Let me add my thanks for the way you've come forward, and for the strength and passion you've expressed."
       Domenici: "Your conduct is exemplary. I wish every American citizen would understand they have some tough responsibilities like this. Thank you."
       Durbin: "I really appreciate the job you did here. It's good to know that there are people like you working in our government who have the integrity and principles to stand up to pressure."
       Thompson: "I think you get the feeling we all share up here in our admiration for you."
       Heslin accepted these compliments modestly, flashing a satisfied maternal smile and replying that she was sure most people in the government would have done exactly as she did.
       The only senator who failed to join in the lovefest was Don Nickles, as usual in too much of a lather to take in any information. He commented that the testimony proved the point that "foreign policy was for sale in this administration." This assessment drew immediate disagreement from both Durbin and Thompson. They said that to the contrary, the testimony made clear that while some people around Clinton might have been willing to sell America's foreign policy, they were prevented by others, most notably the admirable Sheila Heslin.

Jacob Weisberg is SLATE's chief political correspondent. His column, "Strange Bedfellow," appears weekly.