Diplomatic Dance: DC’s Top 5 Embassy Scandals

by Editorial

A look back at the most peculiar scandals on Embassy Row.



Sondra Gotlieb, the wife of Canadian Ambassador Allan Gotlieb, made headlines when she slapped her social secretary Connie Gibson Connors in front of the assembled press for failing to immediately tell her that OMB Director Richard Darman had canceled his acceptance to a 1986 dinner honoring Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Despite the embarrassment and controversy, the incident put the Gottliebs in the spotlight and le tout Washington was soon vying for invitation to the Canadians’ soirees.


Ardeshir Zahedi, the Shah’s man in Washington, was famed for the mountains of caviar and oceans of Dom Perignon he dispensed nightly at some of the most lavish parties the capital had ever seen. After the Islamic revolution toppled the old order in 1979, more than a few well-known journalists and government officials were embarrassed to see their names on a previously confidential list of expensive gifts Ambassador Zahedi had given to help ensure his boss was seen in a favorable light.


Revelation of a German proposal to Mexico to declare war on the United States during World War I caused uproar in the capital of a nation still trying to maintain its neutrality. The German Embassy was already seething with intrigue when the ambassador, Count Johann von Bernstorff, received an encoded message from foreign minister Arthur Zimmermann instructing him to forward it to Germany’s envoy in Mexico. Von Bernsdorff proceeded to break the cardinal rule of cryptology when he re-encoded it in a simpler code he knew his colleague would be able to decipher.

The January, 1917, telegram, which proposed a German-Mexican pact against the U.S. in the event the Americans entered the war, was soon intercepted and decoded by the British, who promptly gave it to President Woodrow Wilson. Newspaper revelations that the offer included promises of Mexico reclaiming territories it had lost in the Mexican-American War of 1848 caused major outrage that led, in part, to the U.S. declaration of war on Germany three months later.


U.S.-South Korean relations suffered after shady businessman/socialite Tongsun Park was accused of bribing high officials, supposedly to help his country achieve goals that included reversing President Richard Nixon’s decision to withdraw U.S. soldiers from South Korea, increasing American military aid, and reducing criticism of human rights violations there. Although as many as 100 members of Congress were said to be involved, only ten were seriously implicated. Two were acquitted, four were censured and reprimanded, and most of the rest resigned their seats.


The complex tunnel system under the sprawling hilltop embassy overlooking the capital was part of overall U.S. efforts to eavesdrop on Russian diplomats and other personnel operating throughout the country. The joint FBI and National Security Agency operation was probably betrayed by longtime FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who was later convicted of espionage and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

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