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Profile: General Services Administration (GSA)
General Services Administration (GSA) was a participant or observer in the following events:
National Archives logo. [Source: public domain]Nixon aide John Ehrlichman suggests breaking into the National Archives. The mission: photograph secret documents Ehrlichman believes were deposited by former Kissinger aides Morton Halperin and Leslie Gelb, as well as Cold War policy adviser Paul Nitze. Ehrlichman says the operation can be carried out with the help of Robert Kunzig, the administrator of the General Services Administration (GSA). Kunzig “can send the archivist out of town for a while and we can get in there and we will photograph and he’ll reseal them.” It is unclear whether the mission is actually carried out. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 369-370]
President Nixon eliminates the Office of Emergency Preparedness (OEP), and transfers its functions to the General Services Administration (GSA) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The GSA will take over the agency’s civil defense, continuity of government, resource management, and other emergency preparedness functions, while HUD will be responsible for disaster preparedness and relief. [Message of the President, 1/26/1973; Richard M. Nixon, 6/27/1973 ; Wing and Walton, 1/1980, pp. 35; B. Wayne Blanchard, 2/5/2008, pp. 18] Similar emergency planning responsibilities are held by the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency, which was established by Nixon within the Department of Defense in May 1972 (see May 5, 1972).
Richard Nixon’s lawyer, Jack Miller, has prepared a “deed of trust” for Nixon’s presidential documents and tapes. According to the proposal, Nixon and the government will share ownership, and the files will be available for court subpoenas for up to five years. Two keys will be necessary to access the material, with Nixon retaining one and the General Services Administration (GSA) retaining the second. Miller is not sure Nixon will accept the plan, but he presents it to President Ford’s lawyers Benton Becker and Philip Buchen. (Nixon has another reason for wanting to retain control of the documents; his agent, Irv “Swifty” Lazar, is peddling a proposal for his biography to publishers, with an asking price of over $2 million. The documents will be a necessary source for the biography.) Buchen tells Miller that Ford is considering pardoning Nixon (see August 30, 1974). Miller is not sure Nixon wants a pardon, with its implication of guilt (see September 2, 1974). Miller has had trouble discussing Watergate with Nixon, who does not want to discuss it and certainly does not want to admit any guilt or complicity in the conspiracy. Becker says that the entire issue of Nixon’s pardon, and the concurrent question of the Nixon files, has to be resolved quickly. [Werth, 2006, pp. 280-281]
President Ford and his lawyer, Benton Becker, discuss pardoning Nixon. [Source: David Hume Kennerly / Getty Images]President Ford authorizes his attorney, Benton Becker, to tell Richard Nixon, “It’s not final, but in all probability a pardon will be forthcoming.” Ford agrees not to seek a decision on Nixon’s presidential files (see September 4, 1974) as a condition for a pardon; however, a statement of contrition (if not an outright admission of guilt) is something Ford and his advisers want from Nixon in return for a pardon. As Becker prepares to leave for California to meet with Nixon and his lawyer, Ford tells Becker to carefully judge Nixon’s physical and mental health. As for the records, Becker will later recall: “We walked out of the office; [Ford] had his hand over my shoulder, he said, ‘I will never, ever give up those records. They belong to the American people. You let President Nixon know that I feel very strongly about this.’” [Werth, 2006, pp. 293] When Becker arrives in San Clemente, he meets with Ron Ziegler, Nixon’s former press secretary, who now serves as Nixon’s personal aide. Ziegler tells Becker, “I can tell you right now that President Nixon will make no statement of admission or complicity in return for a pardon from Jerry Ford.” Becker believes Ziegler was forewarned by Ford’s ad hoc chief of staff, Alexander Haig, who has maintained close contact with the Nixon staff since Nixon’s resignation. Ziegler apparently knows that Ford will not insist on either a document turnover or a statement of contrition in return for a pardon, and is toeing a hard line. Angered by what he considers Haig’s intolerable betrayal of Ford, Becker bluffs Ziegler, turning around and preparing to leave without further discussion. The bluff works; Ziegler and Becker discuss the problem until early in the morning hours. [Werth, 2006, pp. 294-295] By the next morning, Becker has overseen a tentative agreement with Nixon’s lawyer Jack Miller and General Services Administration (GSA) head Arthur Sampson. The agreement will “temporarily” store the documents in a facility near San Clemente, under restricted access requiring both Nixon and a GSA official to access the documents, and Nixon retaining control of who accesses the materials. On September 1, 1979, the agreement reads, Nixon will donate the materials entirely to the federal government. As for the tapes, Nixon retains the right to destroy the tapes after five years, which will be destroyed anyway on September 1, 1989, or on the occasion of Nixon’s death, “whichever event shall first occur.” [Werth, 2006, pp. 297-298]
By administrative order, the Federal Preparedness Agency (FPA) is established within the General Services Administration (GSA) to oversee federal planning for potential national emergencies. The agency will focus on civil defense, continuity of government, and resource management, responsibilities that were transferred to the GSA by President Nixon in 1973 (see July 1, 1973). [Wing and Walton, 1/1980, pp. 35]
Judge Richard P. Matsch sentences convicted Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols (see December 23, 1997) to life in prison without the possibility of parole after his jury cannot decide whether to sentence him to death (see January 7, 1998). He is also sentenced to eight concurrent six-year terms for the deaths of eight federal agents. Matsch orders Nichols to pay $14.5 million in restitution to the General Services Administration (GSA) for the destruction of the Murrah Federal Building. Nichols swears he has only $40,000 in assets; Matsch says that any future proceeds he might receive for selling his story would be given over to the government. Nichols’s defense team tried in vain to assert that Nichols was a “dupe” of fellow defendant Timothy McVeigh (see June 11-13, 1997) and should be given a lighter sentence. Nichols, who refused to provide information about the bombing plot, gave Matsch a written apology (see March 10, 1998). Matsch says Nichols committed an act of treason that demands the most severe punishment: “The only inference that can be drawn from the evidence is that the purpose of the plan was to change the course of government through fear and intimidation.… The evidence shows to my satisfaction that the intention was to disrupt, to disorganize, to intimidate the operations of these agencies and United States government. Apparently, the intention was that the response would be fear and terror and intimidation and that these people would not be able to perform their work and that the response throughout the nation would be hysteria.… But you know, it didn’t work out that way. There was no anarchy. There was no reign of terror.… What occurred was that a community became even more united, and I think perhaps the country as well. We proceeded with the orderly processes of recovery and of restoration.… What he did was participate with others in a conspiracy that would seek to destroy all of the things that the Constitution protects. My obligation as a judge is to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Terry Nichols has proven to be an enemy of the Constitution, and accordingly the sentence I am going to impose will be for the duration of his life. Anyone, no matter who that person might be or what his background might be, who participates in a crime of this magnitude has forfeited the freedoms that this government is designed to protect.” Prosecutors say they are pleased with the sentence, while Nichols’s defense lawyers continue to assert that Nichols did not intend to kill anyone in the bombing. Nichols’s lead attorney, Michael Tigar, files papers calling for a new trial; Matsch says he will schedule a hearing. Marsha Kight, whose daughter Frankie Ann Merrell was killed in the bombing, says: “I’m proud of what happened in the judicial system. I felt like singing ‘God Bless America.’ He got what he deserved.” [Chicago Tribune, 6/5/1998; Washington Post, 6/5/1998; New York Times, 6/5/1998; Douglas O. Linder, 2001; Indianapolis Star, 2003; Fox News, 4/13/2005] Nichols will serve his term in the “supermax” federal facility in Florence, Colorado, that houses Theodore Kaczysnki, the “Unabomber” (see April 3, 1996), and convicted World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef (see February 26, 1993 and February 7, 1995). [Douglas O. Linder, 2006] Nichols refused an offer of leniency in return for his cooperation in further investigation of the bombing (see April 21, 1998).
After Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, the co-chair of Florida’s Bush campaign team (see After 3:30 a.m. November 8, 2000 and After), certifies George W. Bush (R-TX) the winner of Florida’s presidential election (see 7:30 p.m. November 26, 2000), the Bush campaign continues publicly—“ostentatiously,” to quote one London newspaper—preparing for Bush to transition into the White House, naming possible cabinet members and requesting that the General Services Administration (GSA) fund a transition office for Bush to prepare to ascend to the presidency. Andrew Card, a former General Motors executive whom Bush has said will be his chief of staff, says of Bush, “He’s getting ready to be a great president.” Bush’s chief of staff in Texas, Clay Johnson, heads the transition team and Ari Fleischer serves as press secretary. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) has told Senate committee chairpersons to convene their members on January 4, 2001 to begin confirmation hearings on Bush cabinet nominees. The GSA, however, has not gone along with the push. GSA officials say that the 80,000 square feet of Washington office space will stay locked until either Bush or Democrat Al Gore is certified as president. Instead, says Bush’s running mate Dick Cheney, the campaign will set up transition offices funded by private contributions. “We feel it is our obligation to the American people to honor their votes by moving forward and assembling the administration they’ve chosen,” he says. [Guardian, 11/28/2000; Forbes, 2011]
Dick Cheney, the Republican candidate for vice president, orders the opening of a transition office in McLean, Virgina, for the presumptive transfer of power from President Clinton to “President-elect” Bush (see November 27, 2000 and After). The General Services Administration, citing the still-disputed election, refuses to allocate funds or office space to Bush, so Cheney uses private donations to open the office. [Leip, 2008] Cheney made a press announcement of the decision three days earlier. [US News and World Report, 12/13/2000]
The Bush White House alleges that officials and aides from the outgoing Clinton administration vandalized the White House in the last days before Bush officials took over. Conservative news site NewsMax reports that the “slovenly misfits” of the Clinton administration “left the [White House] in a shambles” in the transition between the outgoing Clinton administration and the incoming Bush administration. Clinton aides engaged in “deliberate vandalism,” the report says, and cites a General Services Administration (GSA) official estimating that it may cost up to $250,000 to repair the damage. NewsMax quotes a report by another conservative publication, the American Spectator, which itself quotes “an inspector… called in to assess the vandalism as saying that several executive desks were damaged to the point that they must be replaced, and several more offices must be repainted because of graffiti.” [Guardian, 1/26/2001; NewsMax, 1/26/2001] Conservative Internet gossip writer Matt Drudge reports that “White House offices [were] left ‘trashed’” and so-called “[p]orn bombs [and] lewd messages” were left behind. No explanation of what Drudge meant by the “porn bomb” allegation is ever given. [Chicago Sun-Times, 1/27/2001] The allegations of vandalism and theft will prove to be almost entirely false (see February 8, 2001, February 14, 2001, and May 18, 2001).
Gore's Staffers Charged with Worst of Vandalism - British newspaper The Guardian repeats earlier claims that the worst of the damage was found in offices once occupied by staffers for former Vice President Al Gore, and that Gore’s wife, Tipper, has phoned Lynne Cheney, the wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, to apologize for the damage. The story is false (see January 24, 2001). [Guardian, 1/26/2001]
Reports: Cut Phone Lines, Extensive Damage, Pornographic Photos - Both the Washington Post and The Guardian report allegations that computer and telephone lines were “sliced,” voice-mail messages were changed to “obscene remarks and lewd greetings,” desks were overturned, and trash strewn throughout the premises. The reports add that filing cabinets were glued shut with Superglue, pornographic photographs displayed in printers, and “filthy graffiti scrawled on at least one hallway wall.” The Spectator’s inspector adds that “[e]ntire computer keyboards will have to be replaced because the damage to them is more extensive than simply missing keys,” referring to allegations that some White House keyboards had the “W” keys pried off. The Spectator also reports tales of former Clinton staffers reportedly “laughing and giggling about the mess their former colleagues left behind.” A Bush White House official calls the White House “a pigsty” in the aftermath of the transition. “The Gore and Clinton people didn’t ‘clean out’ the place because there was nothing clean about what they did before they left.” The GSA will pursue the former Clinton officials for reimbursement and expenses. The Spectator reports that “investigators” conclude the damage was “the result of a carefully organized campaign of vandalism unlike anything ever seen in the aftermath of a presidential transition.” [NewsMax, 1/26/2001; Guardian, 1/26/2001; Washington Post, 1/26/2001] The New York Daily News reports, “The destruction was so vast that a telecommunications staffer with more than a quarter-century of service was seen sobbing near his office one night last week.” [New York Daily News, 1/27/2001] CNN’s Paula Zahn observes: “All right, but this is the White House, for God’s sakes. We’re not talking about people living in a fraternity.” [Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, 5/21/2001] Fox News is particularly vehement in its coverage. “They trash[ed] the place,” says Fox commentator Sean Hannity. ”$200,000 in furniture [was] taken out.” Fellow Fox commentator Oliver North (see May-June, 1989) adds: “We should expect from white trash what they did at the White House.… I recommend that what the Bush White House do is peel the wallpaper off that they defaced with their graffiti and ship it off to the Clinton Library so people can see it.” Fox host Bill O’Reilly says, “I mean, the price tag right now is about $200,000, so that’s a felony right there.” And O’Reilly guest Tom Schatz says, referring to the famous film about fraternity life, “They turned it into Animal House.” [Knight Ridder, 2/8/2001; Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, 5/21/2001]
Air Force One 'Stripped Bare,' Reports Claim - The Guardian also reports that during former President Clinton’s last trip in Air Force One, the presidential jet was subjected to what it calls “an orgy of pilfering” (see January 25-27, 2001). It was “stripped bare” by aides, who reportedly took china, silverware, salt and pepper shakers, and other items, most bearing the presidential seal. [Guardian, 1/26/2001] On Fox, Hannity charges, “They strip[ped] Air Force One of the china and everything else that wasn’t bolted down.” [Knight Ridder, 2/8/2001]
Clinton Officials Admit to 'Pranks,' Bush Officials Allege Attempts at Theft - Clinton and Gore officials deny the reports of vandalism, but admit to carrying out pranks such as removing the “W” keys and affixing satirical signs to office doors that read, “Office of Strategery,” “Office of Subliminable Messages,” and “Division of Uniting.” A former Clinton official says, “It’s childish, but it’s also funny.” However, a senior Bush official accuses Clinton staffers of attempting to steal White House paintings and official seals from doors, and attempting to have those items shipped to themselves; Bush officials have ordered that all packages leaving the White House be X-rayed. [Washington Post, 1/26/2001]
Bush Aide Documenting Damages - A Bush White House aide has been delegated to document the vandalism, videos are being taken of the damages, and White House officials are being interviewed. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer has confirmed that the administration is reviewing reports of the alleged vandalism. [NewsMax, 1/26/2001] Bush himself downplays the reports, saying: “There might have been a prank or two, maybe somebody put a cartoon on the wall, but that’s okay. It’s time now to move forward.” [New York Daily News, 1/27/2001]
Entity Tags: Mary Elizabeth (“Tipper”) Gore, Sean Hannity, Matt Drudge, New York Daily News, Paula Zahn, Oliver North, Lynne Cheney, NewsMax, The Guardian, Fox News, General Services Administration, Albert Arnold (“Al”) Gore, Jr., American Spectator, George W. Bush, Ari Fleischer, Bush administration (43), Bill O’Reilly, Tom Schatz, Clinton administration, Washington Post
Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda
The General Services Administration (GSA) reports that there was no truth to assertions that Clinton White House officials had vandalized the White House before departing in January 2001. Bush White House officials made those assertions in January (see January 25, 2001), claims which were picked up on and embellished by conservative talk radio hosts and other media reporters (see January 25-27, 2001 and January 26, 2001). The GSA investigated the claims at the request of House Representative Bob Barr (R-GA).
Normal Wear and Tear, Pranks Found - The GSA report finds that nothing unusual had occurred during the transition from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration. “The condition of the real property was consistent with what we would expect to encounter when tenants vacate office space after an extended occupancy,” the GSA report finds. Although some pranks were found to have taken place—“W” keys removed from computer keyboards and signs reading “Office of Strategery” placed on office doors, for example—none of the other alleged actions took place.
No Evidence for Allegations of Vandalism - No computers, copiers, or telephones were destroyed; no lewd graffiti or pornographic images were pasted to walls or displayed on computer monitors. Nothing was stolen either from the White House or from Air Force One, as many reports had insisted (see February 8, 2001 and February 14, 2001).
Attempt to Smear Clinton Administration? - Harvard University’s Alex Jones says: “I think it was this calculated effort to plant a damaging story. There was a sort of fertile ground for believing anything bad.” The General Accounting Office’s Bernard Unger, director for physical infrastructure, says of the GSA investigation, “They told me that there were papers that were not organized lying on the floor and on desks; there were some scratches here and there, but the bottom line was they didn’t see anything really in their view that was significant and that would appear to some as real extensive damage.” Clinton aide Mark Lindsay, who oversaw the transition between the Clinton and Bush administration, says he is pleased that the GSA has set the record straight. “Because of President Clinton, this was one of the smoothest transitions in the history of the presidency,” he says. “This was nothing more than just lies.” Conservative pundit Tony Snow, one of the harshest critics of the Clinton administration over the so-called “vandal scandal” (see January 26, 2001), says, “I’m perfectly willing to admit my error on the aircraft,” but insists that the information he disseminated about vandalism and wholesale theft at the White House was true. “What often happens in Washington is gossip becomes news,” he notes. “That’s not a good thing.” [Kansas City Star, 5/18/2001; New York Times, 5/19/2001] Former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta says: “Certainly people inside the [Bush] administration fed this story. At least they got what they wanted out of it.” [Salon, 5/23/2001]
Of all the media outlets that pushed the false Clinton “vandal scandal” story (see January 26, 2001), only Fox News immediately offers a true retraction. Fox had been at the forefront of repeating, and embellishing, reports of vandalism and theft carried out by Clinton staffers in the last days of their administration. After the General Services Administration (GSA) reports that none of the reports were true (see May 18, 2001), Fox acknowledges on the air that its reporting had been false. Two days later, Fox News Sunday host Tony Snow, who had accused the Clinton staffers of vandalizing and looting Air Force One (see January 26, 2001), admits his error. “OK, I’m sorry,” Snow says. “The ex-president’s pals have a legitimate beef.” Other media outlets, including NBC News, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, fail to report on the GSA report, or to acknowledge their own errors in spreading the tales. [Salon, 5/23/2001] The Washington Post does eventually report, briefly, on the GSA findings, as do some other newspapers, and Post ombudsman Michael Getler will later write, “The use of a brief news service account rather than a well-displayed, staff-written story about the GSA findings tells me that the readers who complained have better news judgment than the editors.” [American Journalism Review, 7/2001]
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer backs off of previous claims that Clinton administration officials vandalized the White House, and stole all manner of items, during the January 2001 transition between the Clinton and Bush administrations (see January 26, 2001). A General Services Administration report found the allegations virtually without merit (see May 18, 2001). Fleischer is asked about the report, and about his allegations that Bush officials had made a “catalogue” of the vandalism and theft that apparently does not exist. Fleischer now says that he had attempted to “knock… down” reports of alleged vandalism “and draw everybody back and away from this story because it was not something the White House was pursuing.” Fleischer continues: “And I indicated that there was no investigation going on, because there wasn’t. I said, if anything, somebody is cataloguing this. And the next day I further explained that meant that somebody was just keeping mental track of what was taking place. There were no written records about it all. But they were keeping on eye on and noting what did take place as this administration came into office.… The General Services Administration contacted the White House recently and asked if there were any written records of what took place. And just as I indicated, because there were no written records, the White House informed the General Services Administration that we had no written records to provide them. And I think that’s what their report indicated, the White House did not provide them any written records because there were none. Which is what I indicated at the time.” Fleischer says the White House intends “not to live in the past” and focus on “things that took place as this administration entered office…” [White House, 5/22/2001] Fleischer fails to acknowledge that it was his hints and innuendos to the White House press corps that encouraged the story to spread (see January 25, 2001).
In the aftermath of the General Services Administration’s report that the Clinton “vandal scandal” never happened (see May 18, 2001), some wonder how involved the Bush administration was in pushing the falsehoods onto the press—and how willing the press was to run with the juicy, but baseless, allegations. Former Clinton press secretary Jake Siewert says: “The media left a very damaging and false impression. I’d hope the reporters [would] go back and try to figure out what went wrong.” Siewert is less critical of the Bush administration’s role in the scandal, saying that “it’s hard to put any blame on the administration.” Siewert also declines to lay blame on Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, “especially,” Siewert says, “if the guidance he got on the story was wrong” (see May 22, 2001). Washington Post reporter Lloyd Grove, whose short report sparked the entire controversy (see January 23, 2001), says Fleischer is at the heart of the story. “The person who really needs to explain what he was doing was Ari, why he let the story percolate, and why he juiced it with his coy responses,” Grove says. “I think it’s a fair point to ask to what extent Mr. Fleischer’s credibility has been damaged by this.” Washington Post reporter Mike Allen, who contributed much of the Post’s reporting of the alleged vandalism (see January 26, 2001), says Fleischer’s allegation that Clinton staffers “cut [the] wires” of telephones and computers sparked so much coverage (see January 25, 2001). “That seems tough to ignore,” Allen says. Journalism professor Geneva Overholser pins much of the blame on the press: “We wouldn’t have had to go through all this if we had done our job right in the first place.” The media should have pressed harder for documentation and should not have allowed White House sources to remain anonymous, she says. “It’s just amazing what we let people get away with saying.” One White House reporter says that Fleischer did not have to do much more than start the story rolling. “We’re often such willing co-conspirators,” the reporter says. “They don’t have to hatch anything.” [Salon, 5/23/2001; American Journalism Review, 7/2001]
Anthony Weiner. [Source: Anthony Weiner]A Democratic House member and four former Clinton administration staff members demand an apology from President Bush over the disproven Clinton “vandal scandal” stories from January 2001 (see January 25, 2001 and January 26, 2001). Two weeks ago, the General Services Administration (GSA) released a report debunking the stories (see May 18, 2001). In response, the White House leaks a hastily compiled “list” of damages that Bush staffers allege was done during the transition period (see June 2-3, 2001).
Demand for Apology - Representative Anthony Weiner (D-NY) is joined by former White House officials Rob Housman, Jeff Gulko, Bridger McGaw, and Matthew Donoghue in demanding that Bush apologize for besmirching Clinton officials’ reputations with the false allegations. Weiner calls White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who was at the center of much of the rumors, “shameless,” and adds, “A GAO [General Accounting Office] study has confirmed there was no destruction of keyboards, no graffiti, there was no vandalism.” (The GAO found that because the White House had no records of the damages, it could not begin an investigation of the charges.)
Semi-Denial - Fleischer’s deputy, Scott McClellan, notes that “there is no actual GAO ‘report,’ which the congressman refers to in his letter. There’s just a letter from GAO.” McClellan’s odd denial is, according to some Bush officials, an attempt to imply that there was actual damage done by Clinton staffers, but the Bush White House chose not to participate in the GAO’s proposed investigation because it wanted to “move forward” and keep a “positive tone.” One White House aide says: “We never kept a list of all the incidents, and therefore did not have anything to turn over. That doesn’t mean the incidents didn’t happen. We just were pleased to let the matter fade so that people could return to the focus on policy.”
Response to Semi-Denial - Weiner says that the Bush White House claims are disingenuous. “I believe that the responsibility for this largely lies with the White House,” he says. “They fed this story, they nurtured this story, they spread this story.” The “vandal scandal” story was, Weiner says, part of a “strategy by the nascent Bush administration to toss up as much dust and smoke about the Clinton administration to give themselves a soft landing. It makes good copy to say ‘Well, there’s a new sheriff in town, and we don’t vandalize offices.’ Well, neither did the preceding administration.” Clinton staffers were made into “cannon fodder” for Bush administration propaganda, Weiner says. Donoghue calls the tales “a uniquely Capitol punishment, and that is the besmirching of our reputations. Standing here, all I can think of is what Ray Donovan said years ago, which is ‘Where do I go to get my reputation back?’ And that’s why we’re here today.” (Donovan is a former Reagan administration Cabinet official acquitted of bribery charges in 1987.) Donoghue says that he, McGaw, and Gulko have had problems finding jobs after their White House stints in part because of the vandalism allegations. [Salon, 6/2/2001]
Entity Tags: Clinton administration, Ari Fleischer, Anthony D. Weiner, Bush administration (43), Scott McClellan, Jeff Gulko, Matthew Donoghue, General Services Administration, General Accounting Office, Bridger McGaw, George W. Bush, Rob Housman
Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda
Bush officials release this photo as evidence of the ‘systematic vandalism’ performed by outgoing Clinton staffers in January 2001. [Source: White House / Salon]The White House releases a list of damages it says were done by Clinton staffers as part of the Clinton “vandal scandal,” allegations that the White House and Air Force One were vandalized and looted in the final days of the Clinton administration (see January 26, 2001). White House press secretary Ari Fleischer gives the list to Washington Post reporter Mike Allen, but no one else.
Catalogue Based on Bush Staffers' Recollections - For months, White House officials have claimed they were keeping a “catalogue” detailing the damages done, but until now have failed to produce that catalogue; such a listing was not provided to the General Services Administration (GSA) when it reported that the stories of vandalism and looting were almost entirely false (see May 18, 2001). The General Accounting Office (GAO) reported in April that, partly because of the White House’s refusal to release its list of damages, it could confirm none of the often-sensational claims. According to Allen, the damages include “obscene graffiti in six offices, a 20-inch-wide presidential seal ripped off a wall, 10 sliced telephone lines, and 100 inoperable computer keyboards.” Also, pornographic or obscene phone messages were recorded on 15 telephone lines in various offices, requiring the answering machines to be reprogrammed; some printers had pornographic images inserted in stacks of blank copy paper. Doorknobs and nameplates are also listed as “missing.” Most of the alleged vandalism occurred, not in the White House, but in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House. Fleischer says the catalogue was not prepared until Friday, and is based on what Allen calls “the recollections of officials and career government employees, in response to Democrats’ ‘suggestion that the Bush White House made things up’” (see June 1, 2001).
Blaming Clinton Officials, Democrats, Press - Fleischer tells Allen: “The White House will defend itself and the career employees. We tried to be gracious, but the last administration would not take graciousness. By getting the information out, we hope to put an end to this, so everyone can go on with the policy and business of the government.” Former Clinton officials note that Fleischer’s catalogue bears little resemblance to the lurid claims of widespread destruction and looting made in January. Former presidential press secretary Joe Lockhart says the vandalism allegations were part of a failed Bush strategy to “make the new administration look good by comparison to the last one.” He adds: “If anyone did anything that harmed government property, that’s wrong. But to have suggested there was an organized effort that ran into hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage is grossly wrong and misleading.” House Representative Anthony Weiner (D-NY) says that Fleischer and other Bush officials “deliberately misled the American people and smeared the names of public servants who were guilty of nothing.” Fleischer blames the press for keeping the story alive, saying: “Sometimes, stories just are like water running downhill and you can try to slow down the press, but you can’t stop them. All the White House comments were aimed at moving forward. It was all in the context of drawing reporters back from the story, because that’s what the president wanted.” [Washington Post, 6/3/2001]
The General Accounting Office (GAO) intends to reopen its investigation into the so-called Clinton “vandal scandal,” which alleged that Clinton aides had vandalized and looted both the White House and Air Force One in the final days of the Clinton administration (see January 26, 2001). The General Services Administration has recently found that reports of vandalism and theft are almost wholly false (see May 18, 2001). The GAO wants the list of damages that White House press secretary Ari Fleischer recently gave the Washington Post (see June 2-3, 2001), a list that for months White House officials insisted never existed. “We are going to proceed and do the review,” says Bernard Ungar, the GAO’s director of physical infrastructure. “Now they say there is a list.” In April, the GAO asked for the list, which Fleischer had said in January was being compiled (see January 25, 2001); at that time, White House officials admitted that such a list did not exist except in some officials’ “heads” (see April 18, 2001). White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan says that President Bush and others have been downplaying the “vandal scandal” issue because Bush wanted to “move forward”; however, she says, “when it became clear on Friday that others wanted to pursue this issue, the White House staff reconstructed orally what happened.” Buchan is referring to demands from Anthony Weiner (D-NY) that Bush apologize for smearing Clinton staffers’ reputations with the false allegations (see June 1, 2001). “Nothing has fundamentally changed about this story from the very beginning,” says former Clinton press secretary Jake Siewert. “The White House has been smearing a whole class of people without providing any evidence. Most of us are perfectly willing to accept the fact if it turns out to be that something happened. It’s just been these vague allegations without any proof. If there’s damage, there will be a record. If I wanted to get a phone fixed, there’s a paper trail.” Buchan blames White House service staff, who work at the site regardless of what administration is in office, for the original rumors. [Knight Ridder, 6/4/2001] A year later, the GAO will release a report finding “minor damages” occurred during the Clinton-Bush transition (see June 12, 2002).
Some former Clinton administration officials are furious at the White House’s release of a “list” of alleged vandalism (see January 25, 2001 and January 26, 2001) to a Washington Post reporter (see June 2-3, 2001), and demand that the White House document its charges. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer admitted that the list was only put together a few days before and was entirely based on the recollections of Bush officials. He says the White House will document the charges on the list if asked by the General Accounting Office (see June 4, 2001). Former Clinton press secretary Jake Siewert calls Fleischer’s tactics “incredibly infuriating,” and says documentation of the vandalism allegations should be simple because the government keeps careful records of repairs to phones and computers. “If I needed my keyboard fixed, I had to submit a form,” says Siewert, who worked in the White House for more than six years. “There should have been records of all this stuff.” Bush officials say the existing repair records do not indicate the causes of damage, and therefore cannot validate the vandalism claims. The General Services Administration (GSA) concluded in an investigation that the charges of vandalism and looting were almost completely false (see May 18, 2001); the GAO said it was unable to open its own investigation because of “the lack of records… reported by the White House.” House Representative Anthony Weiner (D-NY—see June 1, 2001) says through a spokesman, “The White House’s continuing campaign of disinformation and possible violation of federal law for noncompliance with a GAO investigation calls its credibility—and its list of damaged property—into serious question.” Weiner’s House colleague Bob Barr (R-GA), who has demanded a GAO investigation, has called the failure of the White House to document its vandalism charges “a disservice to the American taxpayers” and asked the GAO “to ensure proper records of federal government property are kept during future presidential transitions.” [Washington Post, 6/4/2001]
The General Accounting Office (GAO) concludes its own investigation of the so-called Clinton “vandal scandal” (see January 26, 2001), and finds that some minor destruction of property did take place within the White House during the final days of the Clinton administration. [New York Times, 6/12/2002]
Keyboards Damaged, Glue on Desks, Graffiti in Restroom, Stolen Plaque - The GAO finds that about $13,000 to $14,000 of damage actually took place; initial reports from Bush administration sources placed the damages at closer to $250,000. Much of that money was spent on replacing computer keyboards, some of which had the “W” key either pried off or defaced. Other damage included glue smeared on desk drawers, derogatory graffiti written on a stall in a White House men’s bathroom, disparaging messages left on telephone answering machines, and signs with satirical or disparaging messages affixed to White House office doors. A file cabinet had a sticker reading “Jail to the Thief” stuck inside one drawer, obviously referring to allegations that President Bush had stolen the 2000 presidential election. And a foot-wide presidential seal went missing from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. The GAO report notes that similar pranks and property damage were reported during earlier transitions, including the 1993 transition between the first Bush administration and the incoming Clinton administration. “We were unable to conclude whether the 2001 transition was worse than previous ones,” the report says. “Any intentional damage at the White House complex, which is a national treasure, is both inappropriate and a serious matter. The theft of or willful damage to government property would constitute a criminal act.” Representative Bob Barr (R-GA), a Clinton critic who requested the GAO investigation as well as an earlier investigation conducted by the General Services Administration (see May 18, 2001), says of the GAO report, “The Clinton administration treated the White House worse than college freshmen checking out of their dorm rooms.” [New York Times, 6/12/2002; Los Angeles Times, 6/12/2002]
Most Allegations Never Confirmed - Salon correspondent Kerry Lauerman notes that the GAO report is “a far cry from what was promised by Republicans like… Barr.” He asks: “Whatever happened to the looting and trashing Barr said would be documented? The expensive paintings that were supposedly stolen from the White House? The ‘cut wires’ that White House press secretary Ari Fleischer had publicly referred to (see January 25, 2001)? The never-explained ‘porn bombs’ that anonymous GOP sources had complained about? The presidential seals that were stolen, or the historical doorknobs that had been yanked off for souvenirs?” Some of the allegations of missing items, such as the missing seal and antique doorknobs, cannot be demonstrated as the result of theft, but are merely listed as “missing.” And many of the items, such as the antique doorknobs, were not on original inventory lists, but, as Lauerman writes, “suddenly showed up on a White House list compiled in June 2001—based on the months-old ‘recollections’ of staffers—which does not exactly scream reliability” (see June 2-3, 2001). [Salon, 6/13/2002]
Bush White House Demands Further Investigations - Bush officials are reported to be “deeply disappointed” with the report, with White House counsel Alberto Gonzales demanding more details, including the full text of the graffiti and other messages that Gonzales describes as “especially offensive or vulgar.” Gonzales is disappointed that the report did not include, for example, “portions of a sign of a mock Time magazine cover” that was among the prank signs left in the White House, and that apparently contained a profanity. “It is vital to include the substance of specific graffiti, messages and signs observed” in order to fully document the acts of vandalism, Gonzales argues. “The content of a message can—and often does—indicate who wrote the message, and when” and “often provides an insight into the mindset or intention of the person who wrote it.” The GAO responds that such details are “unnecessary and inappropriate.” A Bush administration official accuses the GAO of “undertak[ing] a concerted effort to downplay the damage found in the White House complex.” Lauerman writes: “[I]t’s safe to say that a close reading of the GAO report doesn’t validate the charges of wanton, widespread destruction by the Clinton team. What it does show is the lengths to which the Bush administration went to try to make the scandal charges stick.” [New York Times, 6/12/2002; Salon, 6/13/2002]
Degrees of Cooperation - Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri says: “The real scandal here is how much time and money the Republicans have wasted in a vendetta against the Clinton administration. It’s troubling that the White House cooperated so enthusiastically with this investigation, but refused to provide the GAO with records of the energy task force headed by Vice President Cheney” (see May 16, 2001). Bush spokeswoman Anne Womack responds: “The GAO confirmed that damage was done at the White House. We have considered this matter closed for more than a year. Our focus is on moving forward.” [New York Times, 6/12/2002]
Tremendous Cost of Investigation - Lauerman concludes: “The White House made 78 staffers available for interviews with the GAO, and clearly spent an enormous amount of energy just to try to stick another scandal to the Clintons. (Gonzales’ time alone, billed by the hour, might cost more than the $9,000-plus the GAO blamed on the Clintons.) After 11 months, and an investigation that Democrats told the Washington Post cost $200,000, one somehow expected more. Now that all the facts are in, it seems pretty clear which administration should get the blame for the White House vandal scandal.” [Salon, 6/13/2002]
Entity Tags: Alberto R. Gonzales, Anne Womack, Bush administration (43), Ari Fleischer, Robert “Bob” Barr, Clinton administration, General Services Administration, Kerry Lauerman, George W. Bush, Jennifer Palmieri, General Accounting Office
Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda
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