Talking Out of School

  • Martin Indyk's career as a U.S. diplomat has been bizarre, to say the least. "He's like a made-up person," marvels a colleague. An Australian who once worked for his country's intelligence service, Indyk caught Bill Clinton's eye in 1991 while heading a pro-Israel think tank in Washington. He became a U.S. citizen only 10 days before being named Clinton's top Middle East hand on the National Security Council. Two years later, he became the first Jewish-American ambassador to Israel. Then came a stint as Assistant Secretary of State for the region and a second round as ambassador to Israel. Indyk worked hard, ruffled feathers along the way and moved fast in the high-octane world of Middle East diplomacy.

    Fast and perhaps loose, it now turns out. Late last month, Indyk's boss, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, suspended his security clearance after State Department security agents accused him of sloppy handling of classified documents for the past five years. The FBI has been called in to probe allegations that Indyk improperly took classified material home, talked about sensitive subjects in his car within earshot of his Israeli driver and typed confidential reports on an unclassified laptop computer. State Department sources say Indyk was warned months ago that he was violating regulations but that he allegedly continued to flout them.

    Indyk is not accused of passing secrets to foreigners. He maintains that he "would never do anything to compromise" U.S. national security. Friends insist he did only what many ambassadors must do to cope with brutal schedules and constant demands from Washington: cram in work at home and during car rides.

    Any other time, Indyk would probably have received a lighter administrative penalty. But Washington is in the grip of security paranoia. After the FBI's bungled espionage investigation of government nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, the Administration is eager to show it is not singling out Asian Americans for security violations. Albright, under fire from Congress for lax safeguards at the State Department, was not about to give Indyk just a slap on the wrist. Besides, relations between the two had grown chilly because of clashes over how the U.S. should deal with Iraq. "So she's hung Martin out to dry," complains a former U.S. diplomat.

    Indyk is now like a lawyer disbarred. Practically every government document a diplomat touches is classified, so without clearance, the ambassador can do no work. Indyk cannot even walk around the State Department or his own embassy without an escort. Israeli officials fear his absence will damage the Middle East peace process, in which he was intensely involved. Prime Minister Ehud Barak considers him a trusted conduit for exchanges with Washington. Albright defends her decision. "Ambassadors have a responsibility to protect classified documents," she told TIME. But the crackdown could make doing their job more difficult.