Frank Wisner, President Obama's envoy to Egypt, ignited a firestorm over the weekend by asserting that "President Mubarak's continued leadership is critical." The remark contrasted starkly with Obama's previously stated calls for an "orderly transition" to begin in Egypt immediately. Why the mixed messages? Well, it may have something to do with the fact Wisner is on the payroll for a New York-DC law firm that works for the Egyptian government. The Independent's Robert Fisk discovered the apparent conflict of interest earlier today:

The US State Department and Mr Wisner himself have now both claimed that his remarks were made in a "personal capacity". But there is nothing "personal" about Mr Wisner's connections with the litigation firm Patton Boggs, which openly boasts that it advises "the Egyptian military, the Egyptian Economic Development Agency, and has handled arbitrations and litigation on the [Mubarak] government's behalf in Europe and the US". Oddly, not a single journalist raised this extraordinary connection with US government officials – nor the blatant conflict of interest it appears to represent.
Responding to Fisk's story, the law firm Patton Boggs is denying that Wisner ever worked for the Egyptian government. A managing partner at the firm tells Salon that Patton Boggs recently carried out a "very small legal matter" for the Egyptian government but Wisner wasn't involved. Is this much ado about nothing or a glaring conflict of interest?
  • This Is Shameful, writes Robert Fisk at The Independent: "It is inconceivable Hillary Clinton did not know of his employment by a company that works for the very dictator which Mr Wisner now defends in the face of a massive democratic opposition in Egypt. Mr Wisner joined Patton Boggs almost two years ago – more than enough time for both the White House and the State Department to learn of his company's intimate connections with the Mubarak regime.
  • This Reflects Poorly on Obama, writes Marcy Wheeler at Fire Dog Lake: "By and large, the Obama Administration response to this admittedly difficult challenge has been not-horrible. But both Wisner’s selection as envoy (which would have been horrible even without the Patton Boggs connection, given his ties to his daddy’s coup-happy CIA, Enron, and AIG) and Hillary’s outspoken support for Omar Suleiman were unforced errors." Glenn Greenwald at Salon adds, "I'm sure there's some reasonable explanation for the State Department's conduct here; I can't wait to find out what it is."

Patton Boggs is a massive firm with 600 attorneys spread across nine locations. It represents 200 international clients from more than 70 countries. Did Wisner work directly on the Egypt account? If so, problem. At the other far end of the spectrum, he might not even have known the firm represented Egyptians interests. Don't laugh. He's not a managing partner. He's just an 'adviser,' whatever that is, exactly. Now one would think that he knew, but one would think a lot of things that don't turn out to be true.

  • Either Way—It's Odd, says Nicholas Noe, an American political researcher interviewed in Fisk's piece:  "The key problem with Wisner being sent to Cairo at the behest of Hillary is the conflict-of-interest aspect... More than this, the idea that the US is now subcontracting or 'privatising' crisis management is another problem. Do the US lack diplomats?"