A whistleblower in the Bolton nomination learns the power of the blogosphere

On a warm, windy morning last week, in front of a neighborhood coffee shop, Melody Townsel asks herself the question that hangs in the air. "Would I do it again?" she says. She doesn't know the answer; she's leaning, at this moment, toward a big, fat no. She says it with a rueful smile, though any smile at this point is a far cry from the way she felt the day before, when she answered the question "How are you doing?" with a simple "Suicidal."

A month ago you did not know the name Melody Townsel, and a month from now you probably will have forgotten it, unless you are family or a friend or a client of the public relations woman whose business shrinks a little more each week. But now, her name shows up regularly in newspapers and weekly magazines and on Web sites devoted to the bickering of political partisans. There she is in last week's Time, her picture next to that of Colin Powell; there she is being mentioned on CNN and Fox News Channel. She's inescapable as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee ponders her allegations that President Bush's nominee for United Nations ambassador, John Bolton, is a bully who, in the summer of 1994, put her "through hell."

Over the last three weeks, Townsel has become the target of Republican businessmen who charge she's lying and cannon fodder for right-wing bloggers who say much worse, because she sent the committee a letter urging its members "to consider blocking in committee" Bolton's nomination. It was her complaint that caused Republican Senator George Voinovich to claim "my conscience got the best of me" two weeks ago, causing a delay in a vote once considered a slam dunk. (There are 10 Republicans on the committee and eight Democrats, including Joseph Biden.) The vote is now scheduled to take place May 12.

All this began on April 8, when Townsel wrote to the committee about an incident she says occurred while she was working for a private contractor on a U.S. Agency for International Development mission in Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic. It was her job in the summer of 1994 to sell the economic reformation of that country, creating TV programs and T-shirts and even comic books informing citizens how to use their new privatization coupons that, more or less, gave them ownership in the formerly Communist republic.

Townsel says she sent a letter to U.S. AID officials complaining about "months of incompetence" on the part of contractor International Business & Technical Consultants Inc. (IBTCI) and a substantial lack of funds that resulted in "armed threats by Kyrgyz contractors" to herself and her staff. She says within hours of her sending the note, IBTCI's attorney, John Bolton, began chasing her through the halls of a Russian hotel--"throwing things at me, shoving threatening letters under my door and, generally, behaving like a madman." She claimed this went on for two weeks, during which time Bolton "routinely visited me...to pound on the door and shout threats." She says Bolton began telling her fellow workers that Townsel was under federal investigation for misuse of funds and that she was bound for federal prison. Townsel says he also made "unconscionable comments about my weight, my wardrobe...and my sexuality, hinting that I was a lesbian (for the record, I'm not)."

Nothing came of Townsel's letter until a week later, when a friend asked if she could post it to the left-leaning Web site Daily Kos, where members of the Senate and a few journalists apparently read it. On April 15, Townsel got a call from both the Los Angeles Times and Brian McKeon, the Democratic counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The same day, Air America Radio called wanting an interview; Townsel says she declined to talk at first. "I thought, 'I really can't talk to them, because if I do, I'm gonna find myself labeled as some liberal whack job,' and that didn't make sense to me." Then host Sam Seder reached her on her cell phone while he was on the air, and she wound up giving an interview.

It would be the first of many Townsel was to give, because on April 16, Biden e-mailed Townsel's letter to the entire Washington press corps, and it contained all of her contact information. On April 17, the first two stories about Townsel's allegations appeared, in the L.A. Times and The New York Times.

"No one had asked my permission to release the memo," Townsel says. "It just showed up. And then the phones literally exploded, every phone that I had. I made the decision early on that I was really just trying to tell my story and let the Senate consider it for what it was, and so I didn't do any TV at all. When print reporters would call with parts of the story, I would talk to them, but I didn't try to be a big glory hound. I didn't call any reporters. But instantly, the company that had hired Mr. Bolton put out letters of rebuttal, and they said some extraordinarily nasty things."

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