Washington cafe identified in Saudi assassination plot
WASHINGTON // Even for a quiet Monday afternoon, there was an atmosphere of suave cosmopolitanism at Georgetown's Café Milano.
At the bar, one well-appointed lady sipped red wine, unaccompanied, except for a shopping bag from an expensive chocolatier. A younger version, equally expensively clad, sat separately, also alone, and ordered a martini, the drink of choice for certain spies.
At window tables, two couples laughed conspiratorially. A diplomat type and two Eastern European-looking men arrived for late lunch. It could have been the setting for a spy movie.
Cafe Milano was in fact identified in the media this year as the likely place where an alleged Iranian plot to assassinate Adel Al Jubeir, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the US, was to have unfolded. Apparently safely unravelled, however, the plot may instead have secured this pricey Italian eatery a place in the spy folklore of Washington, DC.
The US capital is full of international intrigue and men of mystery. It is not for nothing that the city boasts its own temple to the dark arts of diplomacy, the International Spy Museum.
Mark Stout, the museum's resident historian, said that while Washington's history is littered with cloak-and-dagger incidents, assassinations are still unusual.
"Espionage is sort of the bread and butter of Washington. Assassinations are still pretty rare, thank goodness," he said
London, on the other hand, is the international assassination city for the connoisseur. A Vatican banker was found hanged from a bridge; a Palestinian cartoonist was gunned down in the street; and a Bulgarian playwright was killed by a poison-tipped umbrella. Such murders are not confined to some grainy black-and-white post-imperial past: the Russians continue to resolve their outstanding issues in the city - most recently in 2006 when a former KGB man was poisoned by radioactive plutonium being dropped in his tea.
But the Washington area has had a few. Mr Stout counted four assassinations in the last century. The last one, in 1980, also involved Iran, when a former Iranian diplomat, Ali Akbar Tabatabai, was shot and killed in his home in the Washington suburb of Bethesda, Maryland, by an American Muslim convert, who subsequently fled to Tehran.
The most infamous such incident had come four years earlier, when a car bomb on Sheridan Circle, in the heart of Washington's Embassy Row, killed a Chilean opposition figure, Orlando Letelier, and his US assistant, Ronni Moffit. The Chilean Secret Police were implicated in the murders. They had hired US-born Michael Townley, a former CIA agent, to place a remote-control bomb underneath Mr Letelier's car.
Townley was convicted of the murders, served time in prison and then went into the witness protection programme after telling US officials his story. He had said the Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, had direct knowledge of the assassinations.
"That was a very big deal," said Mr Stout. "Car bombs going off in the United States capital get a lot of attention."
Far more common is the everyday business of espionage. The US capital, said Mr Stout, is very much "a spy hub", an activity that is often conducted under cover but entirely in the open. Restaurants are a logical location, and two places in Washington have special resonance.
In the Cleveland Park area, a Chinese restaurant played a crucial role in the backchannel negotiations that helped resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
The Yenching Palace was deemed a safe place for the emissaries of the US president, John Kennedy, and the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, to meet and subsequently became a favoured haunt for diplomats and spooks. Its tables, it was rumoured, were even bugged, possibly by more than one spy agency.
In 1985, not far from the Café Milano in Georgetown, Au Pied du Cochon, a French bistro, provided the backdrop for Vitaly Yurchenko to give the slip to his handlers from the Central Intelligence Agency. A Soviet spy who had apparently defected to the US, Mr Yurchenko inexplicably decided to return to the Soviet Union just three years before the Cold War ended. He is understood to have begun his journey back to Moscow through a bathroom window.
Not more than a block away, Café Milano is said to be a favoured hangout for Ambassador Al Jubeir and other diplomats. Now at the heart of an outlandish plot involving Mexican bandits and Iranian spies, it may some day be counted among Au Pied du Cochon and the Yenching Palace as one of Washington's premier spy haunts.
The restaurant's manager is reluctant to comment on this possibility. Perhaps for good reason: It has not proven a happy fate.
Yenchung Palace closed in 2007. Au Pied du Cochon shut down in 2004 and is now a Five Guys hamburger joint.
Updated: November 12, 2011 04:00 AM