Once a rising star in Washington, now afraid to return to the U.S.

Jeff Stein / Special to The Washington Post /

Gwenyth Todd had worked in a lot of places in Washington, D.C., where powerful men didn’t hesitate to use sharp elbows. She had been a Middle East expert for the National Security Council in the Clinton administration. She had worked in the office of Defense Secretary Dick Cheney in the first Bush administration, where neoconservative hawks first began planning to overthrow Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

But she was not prepared a few years later in Bahrain when she encountered plans by high-ranking admirals to confront Iran, any of which, she reckoned, could set the region on fire. It was 2007, and Todd, then 42, was a top political adviser to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.

Previous 5th Fleet commanders had resisted various ploys by Bush administration hawks to threaten the Tehran regime. But in spring 2007, a new commander arrived with an ambitious program to show the Iranians who was boss in the Persian Gulf.

Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff — backed by a powerful friend and boss, U.S. Central Command (Centcom) chief Adm. William J. “Fox” Fallon — was itching to push the Iranians, Todd and other present and former Navy officials say.

Two people who were there said Cosgriff mused in a staff meeting that he’d like to steam a Navy frigate up the Shatt al Arab, the diplomatically sensitive and economically crucial waterway dividing Iraq and Iran.

Then he presented an idea that not only alarmed Todd, but eventually, she believes, launched the chain of events that would end her career.

Cosgriff declined to discuss any of these meetings on the record. This story includes information from a half-dozen Navy and other government officials who demanded anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

According to Todd and another witness, Cosgriff’s idea was to sail three “big decks,” as aircraft carriers are known, through the Strait of Hormuz — to put a virtual armada, unannounced, on Iran’s doorstep. No advance notice, even to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies. Not only that, they said, Cosgriff ordered his staff to keep the State Department in the dark, too.

If this maneuver were carried out, Todd and others feared, the Iranians would freak out. At the least, they’d cancel a critical diplomatic meeting coming up with U.S. officials. Todd suspected that was Cosgriff’s aim. She and others also speculated that Cosgriff wouldn’t propose such a brazen plan without Fallon’s support.

Todd feared that the Iranians would respond, possibly by launching fast-attack missile boats into the Gulf or unleashing Hezbollah on Israel. Then anything could happen: a collision, a jittery exchange of gunfire — bad enough on its own, but also an incident that Washington hawks could seize on to justify an all-out response on Iran.

Don’t tell anybody? No way.

Todd picked up the phone and called a friend in Washington. She had to get this thing stopped.

On the fast track

Gwenyth Todd was from a long line of American diplomats, bankers, spies and scholars going back to Revolutionary times. Her first 17 years had been spent following her father, Kenneth Thompson, a career diplomat, and mother, Eve Tyler, through embassies in Malta, Turkey, West Africa, England and Spain. Summers were spent at the family chateau in France.

But Washington was home. Her maternal grandfather, William Royall Tyler, had been an assistant secretary of state in the Kennedy administration and director of Dumbarton Oaks, the estate and center for Byzantine and pre-Columbian art studies.

Todd graduated Phi Beta Kappa in Near and Middle Eastern studies from the University of California at Berkeley, then earned a master’s in Arabic and international affairs in 1990 at Georgetown University.

She seemed destined for a promising career. But she also revealed an early penchant for intrigue. She recounts how, studying Arabic in Syria in 1989, she had drawn the attention of the secret police, who suspected her of being an American spy, apparently because of her romance with a young U.S. Army officer, Maurice “Lin” Todd, attached to the U.N. mission in Damascus. Tipped by a Syrian student that her arrest was imminent, she said her boyfriend suggested they marry immediately so she could escape with diplomatic immunity. (The marriage lasted only six years, “a huge disappointment,” she said.)

Conversant in French, Spanish, Turkish and Arabic, Todd quickly won a White House internship and a job at the U.S. Army Security Assistance Command in Alexandria, Va. Her job involved squiring senior foreign military officers around town.

In 1991, Todd, 27, won a transfer to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, where she gained her first top-secret security clearance and became the desk officer for Iraq, Kuwait and Oman.

With Bill Clinton’s election victory in 1992, Todd became desk officer for Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru.

Two years later, she was back on more familiar turf, as Pentagon desk officer for Turkey, Spain and Cyprus. Clearly on a fast track, she was appointed special assistant to Walter Slocombe, undersecretary of defense for policy. For her work there, she received the department’s Distinguished Civilian Service Award. And in 1997, she got the brass ring: transfer to the White House National Security Council.

“Very heady stuff,” she remembered. But she was now also involved in another high-voltage relationship.

Robert Cabelly had been an Africa expert in three administrations by the time he encountered Todd at a fashionable Washington seafood bistro. Now, in 1995, he was about to turn his inside connections into K Street gold as a lobbyist for oil-rich African regimes.

Todd was attracted to high-powered men who shared her interests. Still hurting from the end of her marriage, however, she wasn’t open to romance. But two years later, “under the impression that he was separated from his wife,” Todd said, “we began a tempestuous relationship.” In 2000, she learned that she was pregnant — and that Cabelly had no intention of divorce, she said.

(Cabelly referred questions about Todd to his Washington lawyer, Aitan Goelman, who declined to comment.)

By then, Todd had left the White House. She was disenchanted with the administration and wanted to make more money to provide for her daughter. She took a consulting job with Global Crossing, a partner of the Houston-based Enron energy conglomerate. When Global went belly up a year later, she was a 37-year-old unemployed single mother of an infant.

Cabelly stepped forward.

“Robert had a vested interest in making sure I got a decent job because I was raising (our daughter),” Todd said. “Robert’s business partner helped me set up my own company,” the consulting firm G.E.T. LLC, in Rockville, Md. Her first client was Nuri Colakoglu, a Turkish steel and shipping magnate.

Unknown to Cabelly, she says, she began an affair with Colakoglu. And unknown to her, she says, Cabelly was getting into business with some of Africa’s worst despots, including Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan, listed by the State Department as a state sponsor of terrorism.

One day in January 2005, she got an intriguing offer from Adm. David Nichols, commander of the 5th Fleet: Come to Manama, Bahrain, as a political adviser, on contract — you can keep your other clients. The job went well for two years, until Cosgriff showed up.

Signs of trouble

Nichols and his successor as 5th Fleet commander, Adm. Patrick Walsh, had been determined to avoid rhetoric or maneuvers that could lead to an unintended clash with Iran. But Cosgriff seemed as eager as the Bush administration hawks to mix it up with the Iranians.

When he instructed Todd and other staff not to tell the State Department about his plan to marshal the big decks that May in 2007, Todd said, it was just too much. She immediately called a family friend at the State Department’s Iran desk. Her contact alerted superiors, according to sources familiar with events, and Cosgriff was told to stand down.

The armada passed through the strait a week later, on May 23, without incident. Likewise, in Baghdad, Iranian and American diplomats met as scheduled.

Cosgriff was furious about “the (expletive) storm” coming down on him from Washington because of the leak, according to Todd and another staff member. Todd was relieved. The big-decks surprise had been defused, and Cosgriff didn’t seem to suspect her of leaking the plan.

Then another emergency popped up, this one personal. Two FBI agents showed up in Bahrain with questions about her, Cabelly and Sudan. They told her Cabelly’s business dealings with the regime were under investigation. Todd was surprised. Cabelly had been granted an exemption in 2005, and she assumed U.S. officials were using him as a back channel to the regime.

Todd said she told the agents she had as little to do with Cabelly as possible, outside of child support. She was now romantically involved with Capt. Charles Huxtable, a Royal Australian Navy captain who was a liaison officer to the 5th Fleet.

Todd opened her house, as well as her computers, to the FBI agents, she said. The FBI agents wanted to know about $30,000 Cabelly had given her. She said she explained that it was for emergency surgery — Bahrain hospitals demanded upfront cash guarantees from foreigners — but that she had returned it because Colakoglu had stepped in to help her first.

She had nothing to hide, she told the agents as they departed with her computers. When they left, they presented her with a summons to appear before a grand jury in Washington.

She hired a lawyer.

Months passed. Todd heard nothing more from the FBI. But at work, she believed Cosgriff started freezing her out.

A strange turn of events

Then, on Dec. 13, 2007, he summoned her to his office. An intelligence report had come in about a possible Iran-backed attack on U.S. personnel in Bahrain. The report said the attacks were to be led by Bahrain’s top Shiite religious figure, Isa Qassim.

Todd thought the report was fishy. Although Bahrain’s Shiites did oppose the U.S.-backed Sunni monarchy, they’re Arabs, eternal enemies of the Persian Iranians. And Qassim himself, it happened, had warned Todd just the previous day that anti-monarchy demonstrators might attack places frequented by U.S. personnel.

The report “looked like a fabrication by someone trying to kill two birds with one stone, by making the Bahraini Shia appear to be anti-U.S. terrorists who also happened to be taking orders from Iran,” Todd said. She suspected the intelligence report was cooked up by Bush administration hawks.

Cosgriff “asked me if I could go out and verify the information at the source — an informant in Dirza, a Shia village — saying that he realized it was dangerous,” Todd said.

Todd’s boss, Martin Adams, recalled the event. “I saw the incoming report,” Adams said. “Someone ... brought it to the office I shared with Gwenyth and showed it to her and to me. Subsequently, Gwenyth got a call, asking her to go down and see Cosgriff — an unusual event in itself. When she returned, she said she had to work that evening, as Cosgriff had asked her to go out to confirm the information in the report.”

But first, they called Cmdr. Carl Inman, the assistant Fleet N2, or intelligence officer. “He was very surprised Cosgriff had called me, not him,” Todd said. Inman said he could not recall that.

According to Todd and Adams, however, the three decided that going at night to Diraz was too dangerous. Instead, she’d try a foreign businessman in town who had good contacts among leading Shiites.

That night, Todd met at a Manama restaurant with the businessman and a Shiite dissident. The dissident batted away the report. The last thing the Bahraini Shiites wanted, he said, was to antagonize the Americans. But violence definitely could erupt between protesters and security forces, he said. U.S. personnel should steer clear.

Todd returned to the base at 10:30, but at the gate, her security badges didn’t work. A glitch, she thought. She talked the guard into letting her in and wrote up a warning report.

At 2 a.m., Inman came in. “This is important,” she remembered him saying. “It has to go out now.” Inman did recall that “we then made sure the right people had her information, her observations and her analysis.”

Exhausted, Todd walked out of her office — for the last time, it turned out.

At 7:30 the next morning, her badge still wasn’t working. Again she wrangled her way past a guard. An “agitated” Inman appeared. Go home, he said. “The front office is very upset.” He couldn’t say more.

“Freaking out,” Todd went to a nearby Starbucks. She called Cosgriff, but got shunted to an adjutant, who told her: “You have to come in for an explanation.”

Now wary, Todd refused.

The next day, her computer access was shut down. The day after that, Cosgriff’s chief of staff called to demand she come in to turn in her badges. Instead, she gave them to Adams for delivery.

Then came a stunning revelation: Todd said she learned from a friend that her access had been suspended the same day Cosgriff had dispatched her into the night to verify the threat report.

Ten days later, on Christmas Eve, her contract was abruptly terminated without explanation. Stripped of clearances, she was not only out of a job, it appeared, but finished altogether, her career in tatters.

In exile and under fire

As the holidays passed, she gloomily assessed her prospects. Huxtable, her Australian navy captain, presented her with an escape plan: Go to Perth, his next duty assignment. Get a house for us. Wait for me there.

She gathered up her daughter and fled. While she appealed to the Navy for an explanation, she solicited recommendations from old colleagues, hoping she might find work again, somehow, in foreign policy. Many stepped forward.

Adm. John Miller, now 5th Fleet commander, called her judgments “sound and invariably on the mark.”

Todd’s departure from Bahrain was “a serious loss,” Inman wrote. “Her appraisals of events are almost uncanny in their accuracy.”

Huxtable finally arrived from Bahrain, and Todd busied herself in wildlife restoration at a national park.

Then, on Feb. 27, 2008, a letter from Cosgriff’s chief of staff, Capt. Joe Sensi, arrived. It was dated Dec. 13, 2007, the day of her strange intelligence mission. For the first time, she read that her contract had been terminated because of “unreported foreign contacts ... financial irresponsibility ... (and) the disclosure of classified information to unauthorized persons.”

Todd shot back a six-page response, demanding a “detailed substantiation.”

“I have no unreported foreign contacts,” she said in the letter. “On the contrary, every contact of interest I have come across during my time at (Naval Forces Central Command) I have factored into my reporting to the Command.”

Next: “If there were concerns about my finances, they were never brought to my attention.”

Next: “I have not knowingly disclosed classified information to any unauthorized person.”

Finally, Todd demanded “a full explanation” of why the Navy had violated personnel rules in canceling her clearances without notice or a chance to appeal.

The Navy’s response: “As ... the manual states, commanding officers will suspend individual access to classified material as warranted.”

Her first year of her exile passed slowly in Perth. On March 29, 2009, she and Huxtable exchanged vows. They moved to Canberra, where her husband took a new post.

Things seemed to have died down at last. But on Oct. 27, 2009, the Justice Department unsealed its indictment of Robert Cabelly. According to the indictment, he had violated sanctions on Sudan, as well as engaged in money laundering, passport fraud and making false statements. Cabelly entered a plea of not guilty to all counts.

And to her alarm, Todd discovered she had been included as an unnamed, unindicted co-conspirator. Her lawyer warned her not to step on American soil until things were resolved.

Then came the oddest incident of all, according to Todd.

One night in February 2011, Todd said, the doorbell rang.On the doorstep was a man who introduced himself as “Bill Phelps, a consular officer from the American Embassy.” He explained to Todd and her husband that Chinese hackers had been compromising U.S. passports, and he was warning ex-pat Americans about it. Could he see her papers, please?

Todd said she “smelled a rat ... somebody connected with U.S. intelligence.” Huxtable was incensed. They told the man to leave.

“Phelps” returned the next day and confessed. “I lied — I’m with the FBI, and we want to talk to you,” Todd recalled him saying. He wanted her to come to the embassy for a video conference with Washington officials to discuss her relationship with Cabelly. (The FBI did not respond to requests to confirm Todd’s account.)

Todd asked the agent whether he could guarantee her immunity if she came to the embassy. No, he said. Forget it then, she replied.

She called her lawyer in Washington. He made a few inquiries and told her that she had been dropped from the indictment months before: There had been a misunderstanding about the cash Cabelly had brought her in 2006 for the emergency surgery, she said.

Todd understands her story sounds improbable. For a long while, she admits, “I thought I was perhaps being paranoid.” But when the mysterious FBI agent showed up, she decided somebody really was out to get her.

“If you want my opinion, I am 100 percent convinced that this is about my thwarting plans to provoke war with Iran,” she said at one point.

One former official familiar with the events in Bahrain agreed. “She got on the wrong side of some powerful people,” he said on condition of anonymity.

The Justice Department will not discuss anything about the Cabelly case. The FBI did not respond to requests to discuss the Australia incident, Todd or Cabelly.

Cabelly’s travails, however, may be reaching closure. A sentencing hearing, scheduled for June, was postponed, under seal.

Eighteen months later, Todd is still afraid to come home.