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Congressional Democrats question whether President Bush and White House officials are trying to influence the Plame Wilson leak investigation through their comments. Recently, Bush told reporters that he doubted the person or persons who leaked CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson’s identity to the press would ever be identified (see October 7, 2003). While administration officials say Bush was just acknowledging the difficulties such an investigation presents, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) says his comments threaten to undermine the investigation by lowering expectations. “If the president says, ‘I don’t know if we’re going to find this person,’ what kind of a statement is that for the president of the United States to make?” Lautenberg asks. “Would he say that about a bank-robbery investigation? He should be as indignant as everybody else is over this breach.” Bush, says Lautenberg, “certainly seems far less certain about finding the leaker than he is about finding Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein.” Plame Wilson’s husband Joseph Wilson agrees. “This goes far beyond someone identifying my wife,” he says. “This was a breach of public trust, and I would think it would behoove the president to ensure that the appropriate assets are devoted to identifying the leaker.” In contrast, White House press secretary Scott McClellan says that criticism of the investigation “appear[s] to be more about politics than about getting to the bottom of the investigation.” Democrats are also critical of the White House’s vocal opposition to the appointment of a special prosecutor to handle the investigation. And they question McClellan’s recent attempts to exonerate three administration officials—Karl Rove, Lewis Libby, and Elliott Abrams—from any responsibility for the leak (see October 4, 2003 and October 5, 2003). In a letter to Bush, four Democratic senators—Tom Daschle (D-SD), Carl Levin (D-MI), Joseph Biden (D-DE), and Charles Schumer (D-NY)—write that McClellan’s assurances are part of an overall pattern of missteps and errors surrounding the White House’s response to the leak investigation. McClellan lacks the legal expertise to question possible suspects, they note. “The White House has now put the Justice Department in the position of having to determine not only what happened, but also whether to contradict the publicly stated position of the White House,” the senators write. Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo says that anything White House officials say has “nothing to do with this investigation. The investigation will follow the facts.” (Lichtblau 10/10/2003)
New York Times reporter Robert Pear discovers that the Bush administration has employed two fake “reporters,” Karen Ryan and Alberto Garcia, who have appeared in administration-produced television “news” segments—“video news releases,” or VNRs—designed to promote the administration’s new Medicare prescription-drug policies. (Garcia primarily appeared in Spanish-language Medicare VNRs.) HHS had budgeted $124 million for the fake news segments, more than most real news organizations can provide. The segments are under investigation by the General Accounting Office (GAO) for possible violation of government statutes prohibiting the use of federal money to produce propaganda or partisan presentations. The Secretary for Health and Human Services (HHS), Tommy Thompson, appears in one of the segments, saying, “This is going to be the same Medicare system only with new benefits, more choices, more opportunities for enhanced benefits.” Several others show a crowd giving President Bush a standing ovation as he signs the new Medicare bill into law. Another segment shows a pharmacist talking to an elderly customer. The pharmacist says the new law “helps you better afford your medications,” and the customer says, “It sounds like a good idea.” The pharmacist agrees, “A very good idea.” The segments, professionally produced and ending with tag lines such as “In Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting,” were regularly aired by at least 50 local television news broadcasts in 40 cities around the country. The government also provides scripts that can be used by local news anchors to introduce, or “walk up,” the VNRs. One script suggested that anchors read the following: “In December, President Bush signed into law the first-ever prescription drug benefit for people with Medicare. Since then, there have been a lot of questions about how the law will help older Americans and people with disabilities. Reporter Karen Ryan helps sort through the details.” A VNR is then broadcast explaining how the new law benefits Medicare recipients.
'Infoganda' - Ryan is a freelance journalist, the administration claims, and using her for such fake news segments is perfectly acceptable. But cursory investigation reveals that she was once a freelance reporter, but has for years worked as a public relations consultant. Her most recent assignments include appearing in marketing videos and “infomercials” promoting a variety of pharmaceutical products, including the popular drugs FloMist and Excedrin. Perhaps the most telling reaction is from Comedy Central’s comedy-news program The Daily Show, where host Jon Stewart can’t seem to decide whether to be outraged or flattered by what Rich calls “government propaganda imitating his satiric art.” (Daily Show member Rob Corddry calls the HHS videos “infoganda.”) Administration officials also insist that the VNRs are real, objective news releases, but the company that produced the segments, Home Front Communications, confirms that it had hired Ryan to read a script prepared by government officials. The VNRs give a toll-free phone number for beneficiaries to call. To obtain recorded information about prescription drug benefits, the caller must speak the words, “Medicare improvement.” The Columbia Journalism Review writes, “The ‘reports’ were nothing more than a free advertisement for the legislation, posing as news.”
Legal? - GAO lawyers say that their initial investigations found that other fliers and advertisements disseminated by HHS to promote the new Medicare policies are legal, though they display “notable omissions and other weaknesses.” Administration officials claim the VNRs are also a legal, effective way to educate Medicare beneficiaries. The GAO is still investigating the VNRs. GAO investigators believe that they might violate the law in at least one aspect: misleading viewers by concealing their government origins. Federal law expressly forbids the use of federal money for “publicity or propaganda purposes” not authorized by Congress. Earlier investigations have found government-disseminated editorials and newspaper articles illegal if they did not identify themselves as coming from government officials. The GAO will find that the VNRs break two federal laws forbidding the use of federal money to produce propaganda (see May 19, 2004).
'Common Practice' - HHS spokesman Kevin Keane says the VNRs are well within legal guidelines; their only purpose, he says, is to inform citizens about changes in Medicare. “The use of video news releases is a common, routine practice in government and the private sector,” he says. “Anyone who has questions about this practice needs to do some research on modern public information tools.” Congressional Democrats disagree with Keane. “These materials are even more disturbing than the Medicare flier and advertisements,” says Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ). “The distribution of these videos is a covert attempt to manipulate the press.” Lautenberg, fellow Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), and seven other members of Congress requested the GAO investigation. Keane is correct in one aspect: businesses have distributed VNRs to news stations as well as internally for years, and the pharmaceutical industry has been particularly successful in getting marketing videos that appear as “medical news” or “medical features” aired on local and even national news broadcasts. And government agencies have for years released informational films and videos on subjects such as teenage smoking and the dangers of using steroids. Bill Kovach, chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, says HHS’s VNRs have gone far beyond what the government has previously provided. “Those to me are just the next thing to fraud,” he says. “It’s running a paid advertisement in the heart of a news program.” (Pear 3/15/2004; McDermott 3/15/2004; Rich 2006, pp. 164)
Media Responsibility - The Columbia Journalism Review’s Bill McDermott writes: “[F]or our money, the villains here aren’t the clever flacks at HHS—they’re supposed to be masters of deception. Nope, the dunce hats go to the local TV station editors willing to slap onto the air any video that drops in over the transom.” (McDermott 3/15/2004) Ryan is relatively insouciant about the controversy. “Stations are lazy,” she says. “If these things didn’t work, then the companies would stop putting them out.” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3/20/2004)
Conservative faux journalist and gay prostitute Jeff Gannon, whose real name is James Guckert, quits as a White House reporter following his exposure by media watchdog organization Media Matters and Internet bloggers. For years, Gannon/Guckert has functioned as a “safe” White House reporter for conservative Internet news site Talon News, providing “softball” questions to President Bush and his press secretaries and representatives that allow the White House to reiterate and emphasize its talking points (see January 26, 2005). He also resigns as a Talon correspondent. Gannon does not apologize for his flatly partisan questioning, and says his questions merely counterbalance those of other reporters, whom he says are largely liberal and hostile towards the Bush administration: “Perhaps the most disturbing thing has been the notion that there isn’t room for one conservative voice in the White House press corps.” Gannon/Guckert refuses to acknowledge his second vocation as a gay prostitute, which he pursues under his given name, and merely says his use of a pseudonym for his journalistic pursuits is a “very innocent… commercial consideration.” Besides, he says, many journalists change their names for broadcast purposes. He does not name any journalists who operate under such pseudonyms. (Block and Norris 2/9/2005)
White House Knew of Pseudonym - Gannon/Guckert’s boss at Talon, Bobby Eberle (see January 28, 2005), says that the White House issued press passes to the “reporter” under his real name, which indicates the White House knew he was writing under a pseudonym. And Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), noting that Gannon/Guckert was denied Congressional press passes because he could not demonstrate that he worked for a legitimate news service, wants to know why Gannon/Guckert was able to pass muster at the White House. “This issue is important from an ethical as well as from a national security standpoint,” Lautenberg says. “It is hard to understand why a man with little real journalism experience was given a White House press corps credential.” (Boehlert 2/15/2005) White House press secretary Scott McClellan denies knowing about Gannon/Guckert’s pseudonym until just recently, and says, “People use aliases all the time in life, from journalists to actors.” (Kurtz 2/16/2005)
Admission and Defense - Days later, in a CNN interview conducted by Wolf Blitzer, Gannon/Guckert admits that he is a “former” gay prostitute, admits his real name, says no one at the White House knew about his sexual past, and says: “I’ve made mistakes in my past. Does my past mean I can’t have a future? Does it disqualify me from being a journalist?” He says he used a pseudonym because his real name is difficult to pronounce. Liberal gay activist John Aravosis, whose AmericaBlog first published pictures of Gannon/Guckert advertising his sexual favors on gay escort Web sites, says the issue is not Gannon/Guckert’s right to be a journalist but his “White House access.… The White House wouldn’t let him in the door right now, knowing of his background.” Aravosis says Gannon/Guckert is guilty of “what I call family values hypocrisy. Basically, he’s asking the gay community to protect him when he attacks us.” Gannon/Guckert wrote numerous articles blasting 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry’s support of gay rights and wrote that Kerry would, if elected, be the country’s “first gay president.” (Kurtz 2/19/2005) On his blog, Aravosis adds: “This is the conservative Republican Bush White House we’re talking about. It’s looking increasingly like they made a decision to allow a hooker to ask the president of the United States questions. They made a decision to give a man with an alias and no journalistic experience access to the West Wing of the White House on a ‘daily basis.’” (Boehlert 2/15/2005)
Softballing Gannon/Guckert - New York Times columnist Frank Rich accuses Blitzer of asking “questions almost as soft as those ‘Jeff’ himself had asked in the White House.” Blitzer accepted without question Gannon/Guckert’s assertion that he used the name Gannon because Guckert was too hard to pronounce, and never questioned Gannon/Guckert’s claim that Talon News “is a separate, independent news division” of GOPUSA. Blitzer, Rich notes, waited until a brief follow-up interview to ask why Gannon/Guckert was questioned by FBI investigators about his knowledge of the Valerie Plame Wilson affair (see October 28, 2003). Blitzer did not ask if his knowledge came from the same officials who took care of his White House press credentials, nor did he ask if Gannon/Guckert has any connection with conservative journalist and CNN commentator Robert Novak, who outed Plame Wilson. “The anchor didn’t go there,” Rich writes. (Rich 2/19/2005)
'Politics of Personal Destruction' - Gannon/Guckert will later say that his resignation from Talon News and from the White House press corps is an example of “the politics of personal destruction.” (Solomon 3/20/2005)
A White House document shows that oil company executives lied in recent Senate hearings when they denied meeting with Vice President Cheney’s energy task force (the National Energy Policy Development Group—see May 16, 2001) in 2001. The document, obtained by the Washington Post, shows that officials from ExxonMobil, Conoco (before it merged with Phillips), Shell Oil, and British Petroleum met with the task force (see March 22, 2001). Last week, the CEOs of ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips denied participating in the task force’s deliberations. Shell Oil’s CEO said his company did not participate “to my knowledge,” and the chief of BP America said he did not know. Though Chevron is not named in the White House document, that firm and others “gave detailed energy policy recommendations” to the task force, according to the Government Accountability Office. Cheney also met separately with John Browne, BP’s chief executive, in a meeting not included in the document. Environmentalists have long stated that they were almost entirely shut out of the deliberations, while corporate interests were heavily represented (see April 4, 2001). The Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that the government could keep the records of the task force secret (see June 24, 2004). Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) says, “The White House went to great lengths to keep these meetings secret, and now oil executives may be lying to Congress about their role in the Cheney task force.” Since the oil executives were not under oath—a decision by Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK) protested by committee Democrats—they cannot be charged with perjury. However, they can be fined or imprisoned for up to five years for making “any materially false, fictitious or fraudulent statement or representation” to Congress. After the Washington Post releases the document, former Conoco manager Alan Huffman confirms, “We met [with the task force] in the Executive Office Building, if I remember correctly.” A ConocoPhillips spokesman says that CEO James Mulva had been unaware of the meetings when he testified at the hearing. ExxonMobil says it stands by CEO Lee Raymond’s denials; James Rouse, an Exxon official named in the document (see Mid-February, 2001), denies meeting with the task force, calling the document “inaccurate.” (Milbank and Blum 11/16/2005)
Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald files a brief with the court that states unequivocally that the White House orchestrated an attempt to besmirch the character and integrity of former ambassador Joseph Wilson (see June 2003, June 3, 2003, June 11, 2003, June 12, 2003, June 19 or 20, 2003, July 6, 2003, July 6-10, 2003, July 7, 2003 or Shortly After, 8:45 a.m. July 7, 2003, 9:22 a.m. July 7, 2003, July 7-8, 2003, July 11, 2003, (July 11, 2003), July 12, 2003, July 12, 2003, July 18, 2003, and October 1, 2003). The New York Times describes Wilson as “the man who emerged as the most damaging critic of the administration’s case that Saddam Hussein was seeking to build nuclear weapons.”
Bush, Cheney at Heart of Smear Campaign - Fitzgerald’s court filing places President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney directly at the center of the controversy, which erupted when conservative columnist Robert Novak used information from White House sources to “out” Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, as a covert CIA agent (see July 14, 2003). According to Fitzgerald, the White House engaged in “a plan to discredit, punish, or seek revenge against Mr. Wilson.” The filing concludes, “It is hard to conceive of what evidence there could be that would disprove the existence of White House efforts to ‘punish Wilson.’” Fitzgerald’s portrait of events is at odds with the Bush administration’s narrative, which attempts to portray Wilson as a minor figure whose criticism of the Iraq invasion comes from his personal and political agenda. Fitzgerald is preparing to turn over to the defense lawyers for Lewis Libby some 1,400 pages of handwritten notes—some presumably by Libby himself—that should bolster Fitzgerald’s assertion. Fitzgerald will file papers in support of his assertion that Bush ordered the selective disclosure of parts of the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (see October 1, 2002) as part of the White House’s attempt to discredit Wilson.
Fitzgerald: Cheney Headed Campaign - Fitzgerald views Cheney, not Bush, as being at what the Times calls “the epicenter of concern about Mr. Wilson.” Fitzgerald notes that Wilson’s op-ed in the New York Times (see July 6, 2003) “was viewed in the Office of the Vice President as a direct attack on the credibility of the vice president (and the president) on a matter of signal importance: the rationale for the war in Iraq.… Disclosing the belief that Mr. Wilson’s wife sent him on the Niger trip was one way for defendant to contradict the assertion that the vice president had done so, while at the same time undercutting Mr. Wilson’s credibility if Mr. Wilson were perceived to have received the assignment on account of nepotism.” Neither Bush’s then-National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, nor Rice’s deputy and eventual successor, Stephen Hadley, knew of the information declassification, Libby indicates. (US District Court for the District of Columbia 4/5/2006 ; Schmitt and Wallsten 4/7/2006; Sanger and Johnston 4/11/2006; Waas 6/14/2006; Washington Post 7/3/2007)
Bush Authorized Leak of Classified Intelligence - Fitzgerald’s filing also states that, according to Libby’s earlier testimony (see March 5, 2004 and March 24, 2004), Bush directly authorized the leak of classified intelligence to reporters as part of the Wilson smear campaign (see April 5, 2006).
Democrats Dismayed at Allegations of Bush Involvement - Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) says: “After the CIA leak controversy broke three years ago, President Bush said, ‘I’d like to know if somebody in my White House did leak sensitive information.’ Now we find out that the president himself was ordering leaks of classified information.… It’s time for the president to come clean with the American people.” And in a letter to Bush, Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA), the ranking minority member of the House Oversight Committee, writes in part, “Two recent revelations raise grave new questions about whether you, the vice president and your top advisors have engaged in a systematic abuse of the national security classification process for political purposes.” (Schmitt and Wallsten 4/7/2006)
In response to a number of questions for the record (QFRs) submitted by senators Daniel Inouye (D-HI) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) regarding an April 26, 2006 testimony on projected and past effects of climate change, scientists at NOAA submit a document of draft responses to an NOAA legislative affairs specialist for review. The document is ultimately reviewed by individuals at the EPA, Energy Department, White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, who suggest a number of changes. For example, the OMB suggests keeping the sentence, “The full range and magnitude of the biological and biogeochemical effects of ocean acidification are still so uncertain that a reliable and quantitative estimate of the likely socio-economic effects is not yet possible,” but removing the sentence immediately following that: “However, healthy coral reef ecosystems are important to both the fisheries and tourism industries and negative impacts on these ecosystems could affect these industries.” According to the OMB, “[a]s written this seems to conflict with the factual first sentence of the paragraph, which adequately answers the question.” In another instance, the OMB recommends adding a sentence that attributes global warming to increasing water vapor, drawing from a quote taken out of context from an article written by scientists Thomas Karl and Kevin Trenberth. When NOAA scientist James Butler attempts to explain that the edit is not scientifically valid, the OMB insists on keeping the change. Finally, Karl himself enters the fray, recommending a change that the OMB accepts. The Government Accountability Project, which will obtain the draft document that shows the changes, comments, “These two examples show that, while federal climate scientists are occasionally able to correct distortions to scientific findings in congressional communication, political appointees can still introduce inaccurate information that goes unchecked.” (Union of Concern Scientists and Government Accountability Project 1/30/2007, pp. 37, 80 ; Maassarani 3/27/2007, pp. 44-46 )
A group of 14 Democratic lawmakers, led by Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, sends a letter to the inspector generals of both the Commerce Department and NASA requesting formal investigations into allegations that Bush administration political appointees suppressed evidence linking global warming to increased hurricane intensity (see 2005, October 16, 2005, October 19, 2005, and November 29, 2005- December 2005). (Office of Senator Frank Lautenberg 9/29/2006; Heilprin 11/2/2006)
In the days and hours after the US Special Forces raid that kills Osama bin Laden in his Abbottabad, Pakistan, hideout (see May 2, 2011), some US officials question whether anyone within the Pakistani government knew that bin Laden was hiding there.
John Brennan, the White House’s top counterterrorism adviser, says that bin Laden’s presence in the Abbottabad compound “raises questions” about what some Pakistani officials might have known. He adds that while Pakistani officials “seem surprised” to hear that bin Laden was hiding there, he wonders how “a compound of that size in that area” could exist without arousing suspicions.
Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who was investigating al-Qaeda well before 9/11, notes that Abbottabad is heavily populated by current and former Pakistani military officers. He says, “There’s no way he could have been sitting there without the knowledge of some people in the ISI and the Pakistani military.”
Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) similarly comments, “The ability of Osama bin Laden to live in a compound so close to Pakistan’s capital is astounding—and we need to understand who knew his location, when they knew it, and whether Pakistani officials were helping to protect him.” (Isikoff 5/2/2011)
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) says that she is troubled by the possibility that the Pakistani government may be engaging in “duplicitous behavior” with the US. “It would be very difficult [for bin Laden] to live there for up to five or six years and no one know [he’s] there. I would have a hard time believing that they did not know,” she says. As chairperson of the Senate Intelligence Committee, she is one of only a small number of people in Congress given top secret security briefings. (Newton-Small 5/3/2011)
An anonymous senior Obama administration official says, “It’s hard to believe that [General Ashfaq Parvez] Kayani and [Lieutenant General Ahmad Shuja] Pasha actually knew that bin Laden was there.” Kayani is the head of the Pakistani army and Pasha is the head of the ISI. “[But] there are degrees of knowing, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we find out that someone close to Pasha knew.” (Cooper and Khan 5/6/2011)
Richard Clarke, the US counterterrorism “tsar” on 9/11, says, “I think there’s a real possibility that we’ll find that there were former members of the Pakistani military and military intelligence who were sympathizers with al-Qaeda and with various other terrorist groups, and that they were running their own sort of renegade support system for al-Qaeda.” (Chuchmach 5/7/2011)
About one month after bin Laden’s death, Representative Mike Rogers (R-MI) says he believes elements of the ISI and Pakistan’s military protected bin Laden. He says this is based on “information I’ve seen.” As chairperson of the House Intelligence Committee, he is one of only a small number of people in Congress given top secret security briefings. He adds that he has not seen any evidence that top Pakistani civilian or military leaders were involved in hiding bin Laden. (Schmitt and Mazzetti 6/14/2011)
Representative C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-MD) says that some members of the ISI or Pakistan’s military were involved in hiding bin Laden. As the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, he also is one of only a small number of people in Congress given top secret security briefings. (Gall, Shah, and Schmitt 6/23/2011)
However, most US officials are hesitant to openly accuse Pakistan, for political reasons. The New York Times reports, “One [unnamed] senior administration official privately acknowledged that the administration sees its relationship with Pakistan as too crucial to risk a wholesale break, even if it turned out that past or present Pakistani intelligence officials did know about bin Laden’s whereabouts.” (Cooper and Khan 5/6/2011) Pakistani officials deny that the Pakistani government had any knowledge that bin Laden was living at the compound. (Isikoff 5/2/2011)
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