The Scandal That Keeps on Giving

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Friday, February 18, 2005; 12:37 PM

The story of the phony White House reporter who called himself Jeff Gannon just gets curiouser and curiouser every day -- and shows no sign of abating.

Quite the contrary, in fact. After only occasionally burbling out of the realm of bloggers and media watchers over the past few weeks, the story exploded onto network television last night.

And after a few days in which the chatter was fixated on the salacious associations that bloggers uncovered between James D. Guckert (Gannon's real name) and gay escort Web sites, the focus is back on a serious public policy question: Why was a non-journalist asking slanted non-questions welcomed into the White House Briefing room?

Here's Brian Williams, introducing the story to about 10-million-plus people last night on the NBC Nightly News:

"It is the talk of Washington these days. It involves a man who was a regular in the White House press briefing room, he was free to ask President Bush and his press secretary on a regular basis. But it turns out he wasn't really a journalist and wasn't using his real name -- and there is more to his past that is making a lot of people wonder what he was doing in the White House in the first place."

The NBC report then quotes journalism ethics lecturer Kelly McBride asking: "Was he a plant? Was he a ringer? It's a great question, and that has yet to be answered."

And now it turns out that Guckert did initially raise eyebrows in the White House press office -- but that any qualms were quickly waved off, and Guckert then kept on getting waved in.

Joe Strupp writes in Editor & Publisher: "Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer was so concerned about Talon News reporter James Guckert's potential ties to the Republican Party that he stopped calling on him at press briefings for about a week in 2003, Fleischer told E&P today.

" 'I found out that he worked for a GOP site, and I didn't think it was my place to call on him because he worked for something that was related to the party,' Fleischer said in a phone interview. 'He had the editor call me and made the case that they were not related to the Republican Party. He said they used the GOP name for marketing purposes only.'

"He said he resumed calling on Guckert, who used the alias Jeff Gannon, after Bobby Eberle, owner of both GOPUSA and Talon News, 'assured me that they were not part of the Republican Party.' Eberle is a Texas Republican activist and served as a delegate to the 2000 Republican National Convention."

Strupp asked Fleischer if he thinks changes should be made in the credentialing process be made. Fleischer replied that "the White House Correspondents Association should either seek a change or leave it alone and recognize that there is room for a little weirdness on both sides."

Fleischer also said Guckert was "just as legitimate as some of the fringe organizations in the room."

Another new wrinkle: It appears Guckert was cleared into the briefing room even before his alleged news organization existed.

Eric Boehlert in Salon writes: "Thanks to the continued digging by online sleuths, there's now documented evidence that Guckert attended White House briefings as early as February 2003. Guckert, using his alias 'Jeff Gannon,' once boasted online about asking then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer a question at the Feb. 28, 2003, briefing. The date is significant because in order to receive a White House press pass, Guckert would have needed to prove that he worked for a news organization that, in the words of White House press secretary Scott McClellan, 'published regularly,' in itself an extraordinarily low threshold. Critics have charged that while Talon News may publish regularly, it boasts a nearly all-volunteer news team that includes not a single person with actual journalism experience. (The team does, though, have quite a bit of experience working on Republican campaigns.) In other words, the outfit is not legitimate or independent, two criteria often used in Washington to receive press credentials.

"But what's significant about the February 2003 date is that Talon did not even exist then."

Keith Olbermann of MSNBC writes in his blog: "Today, the key, slim, rationale for his admittance to the briefing room -- that the 'vanity website' for which he 'reported,' Talon News, was created four days before 'Jeff Gannon' got his first White House pass -- collapsed. . . .

"It was a bad enough that somebody let in a guy with no media experience, an alias, and a background as an on-line escort -- but why did they let him in if he wasn't even pretending to represent a news organization of any kind?"

The New York Times weighed in with its second new story on the topic this morning. Anne E. Kornblut writes: "Over the last few years, Mr. Guckert's frequent presence and slanted questions at White House briefings elicited smirks and raised eyebrows from other reporters. The White House press pool tends to attract a wider variety of personalities than those covering other major government agencies because the work is more high profile, with regularly scheduled briefings that are often televised. . . .

" 'This is an irritant that we deal with, people who try to hijack the briefing for ideological reasons,' said Ron Hutcheson of Knight Ridder, president of the White House Correspondents' Association. 'A few people are in there just to get across their points of view. But it's the kind of thing we put up with, because nobody can quite figure out how to deal with it.' . . .

"One of the most widely debated questions has been Mr. Guckert's access to the White House, which is usually limited to well-established news organizations and off limits to paid political workers. In an environment where the lines between advocacy journalism and partisan activity are blurred, Mr. Guckert appears to have gained access as a fringe participant who never sought entry through the usual channels but instead returned repeatedly for temporary passes."

Scott Shepard writes for Cox News Service: "With the mystery of 'Jeff Gannon' deepening, Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., on Thursday renewed her call for the White House to explain its relationship with a conservative ex-reporter linked to an online gay escort service.

"Slaughter said the relationship between the White House press office and 'Gannon,' whose real name is James Dale Guckert, was 'anything but typical.' The White House should 'stop the stonewalling and come clean,' she added, following up on her initial request a week ago."

In the Houston Chronicle, Rachel Graves interviews Guckert's former boss, Bobby Eberle.

"Eberle is the owner, president and CEO of two Web sites, the openly partisan GOPUSA and what he says is a nonpartisan news organization, Talon News. . . .

"Eberle would not discuss Gannon, but he portrayed himself as a do-gooder who got involved in journalism and politics to spread information and the conservative message."

And finally, it's worth noting that the White House press corps appears to consider this less of a story than a lot of other people do. Case in point: President Bush took almost 20 questions at yesterday's press conference, and not one of them was about Guckert.

Social Security Plan in Trouble?

Peter Wallsten and Warren Vieth write in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush's push to transform Social Security is in trouble, despite intense salesmanship designed to build support in Congress and with the public.

"Democrats are united against the president on the issue. A new national poll shows the idea is losing ground with taxpayers. Many Republicans in Congress remain hesitant to promote letting workers under 55 privately invest a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes.

"And Thursday, Bush's political challenge became more daunting as one of his key constituencies -- economic conservatives -- fumed at his new willingness to consider a tax increase to pay for the changes."

Jill Zuckman writes in the Chicago Tribune: "President Bush declared Thursday that his overhaul of Social Security 'is going nowhere' if Congress does not come to share his belief in the urgent need for change. He acknowledged that he still has much work to do in convincing lawmakers and the public of the merits of his proposal."

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "The House's top two Republicans swiftly rejected an idea floated by President Bush to raise the ceiling on wages subject to the Social Security payroll tax, with Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay saying yesterday that they would consider that a tax increase."

Richard W. Stevenson and Robin Toner of the New York Times describe that opposition as "deflating President Bush's first effort to promote bipartisan trust over how to address the retirement system's projected financial troubles."

Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve chairman, was on the Hill again yesterday. Stevenson and Toner write that he "gave his support to Mr. Bush's philosophy of trying to create an 'ownership society,' telling the House Financial Services Committee that a well-constructed system of personal investment accounts would result in a 'sense of increased wealth on the part of the middle- and lower-income classes of this society who have had -- struggle with very little capital.'"

But, they add: "In response to a question from Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, Mr. Greenspan said he could not say whether he would have voted to create Social Security if he had been a member of Congress in 1935, when the retirement system was established."

About That Cap

Laura Meckler writes for the Associated Press: "Increasing Social Security taxes for the wealthiest Americans could raise more than $100 billion a year -- enough to shore up the retirement system's finances for 75 years, pay for President Bush's plan for private accounts, or part of each. . . .

"An analysis written last week by Social Security actuaries found that eliminating the cap would mean the system would continue to collect more than it paid out until 2025, and would stay solvent for 75 years, the window traditionally used to evaluate the program's finances.

"The system stays solvent for a bit longer than 75 years if you raise taxes on these high earners but don't raise their future benefits to match. As is, retirement benefits are tied to the taxes paid during working years."

Parsing Their Statements

Could it be that Bush and Vice President Cheney aren't on the same page when it comes to considering a change in the cap?

Here, from the transcript of Bush's press conference, is his response to a question about the cap: "We welcome any idea -- except running up the payroll tax rate, which I've been consistent on."

Note the word rate.

Vice President Cheney spoke last night at the Conservative Political Action Committee conference. Here is the text of his remarks. He said "we must not increase payroll taxes on American workers. Combined with a federal income tax burden that's already too high, endless increases in the payroll tax would take a heavy toll on American workers, and would hurt the economy. We cannot tax our way out of this problem."

He's not talking rate -- he's talking tax.

Cheney, by the way, also repeated his mandate claim: "President Bush ran forthrightly on a clear agenda for this nation's future, and the voters responded by giving him a mandate," he said. "In this new term we're going to use that mandate to achieve great goals -- so we can leave this nation better, stronger, and safer than we found it."

Dueling Calculators

Democratic New York Senator Charles E. Schumer is out with a "Social Insecurity calculator," to compete with the Cato Institute's.

Former Democratic Congressman, Indeed

I noted in yesterday's column how keen McClellan was to point out that Bush was being joined on stage in New Hampshire by former Democratic Congressman Tim Penny, which he said was "an example of leaders on both sides of the aisle who recognize the importance of addressing the problems facing Social Security and working to find a bipartisan solution and doing so this year."

Well, not so fast, explains reader Matt Pelikan in an e-mail.

"I just wanted to point out that President Bush's 'Democratic' ally on Social Security, Tim Penny, is not, in fact, a Democrat. The press often calls Tim 'a former Democratic representative' without specifying that the 'former' applies to both his status as a US Representative and as a Democrat.

"I have yet to see it noted that Rep. Penny ran for Governor in Minnesota in 2002 as a member of Jesse Ventura's Independence Party. He did not receive and did not seek the Democratic nomination, and ran against the Democratic endorsed candidate, Roger Moe."

It is now so noted.

Turned Away

I also noted yesterday that only about half the expected crowd showed up at the New Hampshire event, leaving a lot of empty chairs that were eventually removed.

I asked: "So what happened there? Just no interest? I'd like to know if anyone who wanted tickets was turned down."

And lo and behold, reader Tinka Pritchett of Dover, N.H., e-mailed back:

"Hi Dan, Our local newspaper announced 2,000 tickets available for Bush's visit if we signed up Monday at our Representative's office. I walked into Jeb Bradley's office about 9:30 that morning to get my name on the list. I was about number 15. After giving my name, address, and phone number, I was told that the list was to be reviewed by the White House and someone would get back to me. Never got a call back. In yesterday's evening news, the report was that only 1,000 people attended the event. Not enough time to do background checks? Or did the White House uninvite the Democrats?"

Kicked Out

But wait, there's more.

Boston Herald columnist Peter Gelzinis this morning tells the story of Freddie Goldsmith, who "went to the Pease International Tradeport on Tuesday, sure that George W. Bush would listen to his Social Security Income grievance.

"But before the band finished 'Hail To The Chief,' a squad of Portsmouth cops swooped in to unceremoniously 'escort' this 52-year-old guy with a bad leg and a hole in his liver out of the hangar and halfway across the parking lot."

Goldsmith told Gelzinis he thinks his rousting had something to do with the bald guy sitting in the seat next to him.

" 'This guy next to me starts talking about Iraq,' Freddie recalled. 'He tells me he thinks it's a war worth carrying on. I give him this look and say "You . . . WHAT!" I told him I thought Iraq was another Vietnam'. . . . "

"On one of his trips to the bathroom, Freddie said he noticed the bald-headed guy talking to a fellow in a trenchcoat. 'And guess who was with the Portsmouth cops when they yanked me out of there?' Mr. Secret Service, I presume.

" 'Can't I speak my mind?' Freddie sighed. '(Bleep) I thought this was New Hampshire, not Tehran. No, I didn't vote for Bush, but I respect the president. I love this country. And I went there because I wanted to ask the president if he could right the wrong that's been done to me?' "

Negroponte Watch

Bush nominated John D. Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, yesterday to be director of national intelligence.

Michael A. Fletcher and Walter Pincus write in The Washington Post: "In comments to reporters, Bush made it clear that he would look to Negroponte as his top intelligence official, not just in title but also in fact. 'When the intelligence briefings start in the morning, John will be there,' Bush said. . . .

" 'He understands the power centers in Washington,' Bush said, adding that he also has another key qualification. 'His service in Iraq during these past few historic months has given him something that will prove an incalculable advantage for an intelligence chief: an unvarnished and up-close look at a deadly enemy.' "

Fletcher and Pincus note: "Negroponte's name did not arise in the early speculation that swirled around the new intelligence post, which had mentioned former CIA director Robert M. Gates, current CIA Director Porter J. Goss and retired Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks as candidates. But in the past few weeks, after some candidates were hesitant about the job, the White House focused on Negroponte after it became clear that he wanted to leave his Baghdad post."

Dana Priest and Robin Wright write in The Washington Post: "As President Bush described it yesterday, Negroponte is supposed to be the one resolving all these issues. But whether that actually happens in the ensuing bureaucratic battles will depend not only on the diplomatic and power-brokering skills he acquired over his long career but also on his relationship with Bush, said his colleagues and intelligence experts."

David E. Sanger writes that Negroponte knows what it's like to be on the receiving end of bad intelligence. He "first saw the impact of erroneous assessments of the enemy as a young Foreign Service officer in Vietnam. As American delegate to the United Nations in the run-up to the war in Iraq, he held the unenviable job of selling the invasion of Iraq on the basis of a classified National Intelligence Estimate that detailed Saddam Hussein's pursuit and acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, an estimate that turned out to be almost all wrong."

But as ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s, then a huge base for C.I.A. operatives helping the Nicaraguan contras, Negroponte was, critics say, a provider of bad intelligence himself.

Sanger writes: "At that time the C.I.A. station and the embassy were accused of turning a blind eye to torture and other abuses by the Hondurans, and of shading reports of the situation in the country for political or ideological reasons."

Bob Drogin writes in the Los Angeles Time that "the surprise choice of a veteran diplomat who speaks five languages -- but has no known experience working in the shadowy world of espionage -- also refueled concerns that the high-profile post entailed vast responsibilities but limited authority and that it may do little to increase the nation's security."

And New York Times reporter Douglas Jehl, in a video report, says: "The challenge for him is going to be to be able to tell the truth, even when it's something the president doesn't want to hear."

Europe, Ho!

William Douglas writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Mindful that U.S.-European relations soured dramatically during his first term, President Bush begins a four-day tour Sunday to mend the frayed transatlantic partnership and build support for his plans to rebuild Iraq and reshape the politics of the Middle East. . . .

"No more talk of 'freedom' fries or Old Europe vs. New Europe. Rapprochement is the buzzword in the White House now," Douglas writes.

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush pressed Syria, Iran and North Korea yesterday to live up to international commitments and reverse policies destabilizing their regions, but emphasized that he will seek diplomatic rather than military solutions to the escalating conflicts.

"Bush carefully avoided provocative language and stressed his desire to work with European and Asian allies to isolate or persuade the three maverick countries to alter course, distinguishing the current standoffs from the confrontation that led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq two years ago."

Christopher Cooper and Neil King Jr. write in the Wall Street Journal: "Despite Washington's latest charm offensive, many Europeans are skeptical that the Bush administration really has changed its tune. Irritations still run deep over the administration's summary rejection of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, for example, and appear to be waiting for an explanation. They could be disappointed by the response they receive. Mr. Bush seemed content at his news conference yesterday to let some policy differences remain. 'They thought the treaty made sense. I didn't,' he said."

The Economist writes that "there is a long list of issues to discuss." It then summarizes nine of them.

Stephen Castle writes in the Independent: "President George Bush is 'warm', 'spontaneous' and better in private than in his 'rigid' television appearances, according to Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, who has embarked on a charm offensive ahead of the US President's visit this weekend. Speaking to The Independent yesterday, Mr Barroso, who is playing a role in an unprecedented EU push to patch up the relationship between Europe and Washington, underlined his desire for the visit to become a symbol of transatlantic rapprochement."

Ah, but: "Mr Barroso conceded that it was not yet clear that the US is ready to work more multilaterally, adding: 'Our position is that we have to work together in the framework of global institutions because if we work together, maybe the world is better.' "

Hadley Speaks

National security adviser Stephen Hadley briefed the press on Bush's trip yesterday. For some reason, the White House doesn't seem to have posted the transcript, so I will.

He says, among other things, that on Monday afternoon in Brussels, "the President will deliver a speech at the Concert Noble. The speech will focus on his vision of a united transatlantic community, working together to promote freedom and democracy, particularly in the broader Middle East. The speech will build upon the President's inaugural address and State of the Union remarks. It will be an opportunity for him to communicate directly with the people of Europe, and will show America's desire to work in partnership with Europe, based on common values, to advance the cause of freedom."

And contrary to what I quote Reuters as saying yesterday, Hadley says a meeting with real Germans in Mainz is still on.

Mankiw Watch

Martin Crutsinger writes for the Associated Press: "Contending that Americans benefit from free trade, President Bush said Thursday he would keep pursuing liberalization agreements around the world, even as critics say his policies have resulted in record trade deficits and millions of lost jobs.

"Bush's pledge came in his annual economic report to Congress, a 438-page document that argued that his economic policies, ranging from making his first-term tax cuts permanent to overhauling Social Security, will lead to greater prosperity."

Here's the new Economic Report of the President.

Outgoing Council of Economic Advisers N. Gregory Mankiw briefed the press on Bush's trip yesterday. For some reason, the White House doesn't seem to have posted the transcript, so I will.

Class Action and More

John F. Harris writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush will sign legislation this morning to rewrite the rules for class-action lawsuits, a measure he has coveted for years and whose swift passage in the new Congress illustrates the expanded influence of Republicans and their business supporters."

Stephen Labaton writes in the New York Times: "After suffering numerous setbacks in President Bush's first term, business lobbyists now say they have the wind at their backs."

Next up: a bankruptcy overhaul long sought by major banks, credit card companies and retailers.

"After breakfast on Wednesday morning with President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, Senator Bill Frist, the majority leader, crossed the street to the Chamber of Commerce's ornate granite headquarters where he announced that he intended to take the bankruptcy measure to the floor the first week in March. He suggested that the bill would be swiftly adopted."

Karl Rove Watch

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush's top political strategist, on Thursday pronounced conservatism the 'dominant political creed in America' and coached fellow conservatives on how to support his boss."

Rove said: "The next time one of your smartypants liberal friends says to you, 'Well, he didn't have a mandate,' you tell him of this delicious fact: This president got a higher percentage of the vote than any Democratic candidate for president since 1964."

He added: "Republicans cannot grow tired or timid."

David D. Kirkpatrick writes in the New York Times: "Karl Rove, the political adviser to President Bush who recently became chief of staff for policy, said on Thursday that Mr. Bush had helped transform conservatism from 'reactionary' to 'forward looking,' in part by incorporating what had been liberal ideas on foreign policy.

" 'The president made a powerful case in the inaugural speech and before for spreading human liberty and preserving human dignity,' Mr. Rove said at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference here. . . .

"He said the president had also taken over the Democrats' lead in proposing new ideas for government."

Nina J. Easton writes in the Boston Globe: "Providing a glimpse into the GOP's line of attack for the 2006 midterm elections, Rove described Democrats as obstructionist and wedded to the past. 'And that's not a good place to be in American politics,' he told the Conservative Political Action Committee's annual convention."

© 2005