There is something about the fuss over the White House reporter formerly known as Jeff Gannon that makes me uneasy. No, it’s not the sexually explicit photos of him that accompany what appears to be ads in which he offers himself as a gay prostitute for clients seeking a military type. (These photographs were discovered by blogger John Aravosis. Click here–but not if you are faint-hearted.) These photos are an issue because the Bush White House granted Gannon–whose real name seems to be James Guckert–entry to press briefings conducted by press secretary Scott McClellan and press conferences with George W. Bush. Gannon/Guckert, who wrote for the conservative Talon News service (which is run by a Republican activist), was awarded such access even though he did not qualify for a congressional press pass–the standard press pass in Washington. It is legitimate to ask why the White House permitted a fellow with a spotty past and questionable credentials to become part of the press corps. Did he get special treatment because he was a conservative? After all, this whole to-do started when Gannon/Guckert at a January 26 press conference aked Bush a softball question in which he characterized Senate Democratic leaders as “people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality.”
But let me raise a cautionary note or two. The blogosphere in recent months has become the piling-on-osphere. When there is blood in the water–or on the keyboard–bloggers rush in for the kill. (Gannon resigned from Talon News a few days ago.) So far all of the victims have deserved the whacks. Dan Rather was pigheaded and defiant when he should have responded to questions about his 60 Minutes report on Bush’s dodgy military service by saying, “Those are interesting and troubling points, we’ll check them out immediately.” Trent Lott was going to escape his stupid remark hailing Strom Thurmond’s days as a segregationist until bloggers orchestrated a drumbeat. CNN executive Eason Jordan did not immediately clarify, back up or retract comments in which he reportedly claimed that US troops in Iraq had purposefully targeted and killed journalists. Yet the speed and drama of these trials-by-blog may be cause for quasi-concern not unfettered celebration. Am I being a semi-old fuddy-duddy? Could be. When I have a hot story I move as fast as possible to get it out. No one wants to be scooped. And I, too, delight in producing stories that expose hypocrisy and wrongdoing.
But with the Gannon/Guckert case, I wonder if there was a touch of blog-hysteria. (Bloggers, don’t jump on me. I blog too. Click here. I’m only wondering, not accusing.) I am not suggesting, as I noted above, that the who-is-Gannon story was not appropriate grist for the blog-mill. But is it possible that significance of this odd tale was inflated during the red-hot pursuit of this fellow? I’ve met Gannon a few times. For some reason, he was eager to say hello to me when I last visited the White House press room and was handing out invitations to the party for my book, The Lies of George W. Bush. He struck me as mostly innocuous. At the White House daily briefings conducted by McClellan, Gannon/Guckert did ask ideologically loaded questions. But so do other reporters. Until he suffered a heart attack last month, radio commentator Les Kinsolving was known for posing long-winded questions that revealed a sharp rightwing bias. There is nothing wrong with a real journalist hurling at the press secretary–or the president–a pointed question with an ideological foundation. The heroic Helen Thomas does that often. Russell Mokhiber of the Corporate Crime Reporter often challenged Ari Fleischer in this fashion. Arguably, the Q&As at the White House could use more of this sort of questioning. I’d be delighted to see journalists from conservative publications press Bush on the administration’s lowball estimates of Medicare drug benefits. Gannon/Guckert’s pursuers ought to be careful and note that the problem with Gannon/Guckert was not that he was a reporter with an obvious political bent but that he had weak credentials and an iffy background.
Gannon/Guckert’s critics have portrayed him as a White House plant. That could be an overstatement. At the White House daily briefings, most of the journalists present tend to be called upon by McClellan. This is different from what happens at press conferences with Bush. During the briefings, reporters are able to ask multiple questions and return to issues after McClellan has not answered their queries and moved on to other journalists. It’s not a one-shot deal. So Gannon/Guckert was not much help to the McClellan at these briefings. If he asked McClellan an easy question, that would not change the course of the entire briefing and save McClellan from other reporters.
Gannon/Guckert was called upon by Bush at that January 26 press conference. This was the first time Bush recognized him, and Gannon/Guckert had been at the White House since 2003. Moreover, Bush has demonstrated his ability to stumble through press conferences, not truly answering question, without assistance from a friendly member of the press corps. I doubt the White House press operation saw Gannon/Guckert as a lifeline for either McClellan or Bush. If he received preferential treatment from the White House, my hunch is that he did so due to sloppiness on the part of the press office or because he was viewed as simpatico.
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In addition to the White House’s inadequate vetting of Gannon/Guckert, there is another serious angle in the Gannon/Guckert story. In October 2003, Gannon/Guckert interviewed former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, a Bush critic whose wife months earlier had been outed in a Robert Novak column as an undercover CIA officer by unidentified administration officials. During this interview, Gannon/Guckert cited “an internal government memo prepared by US intelligence personnel that details a meeting in early 2002 where your wife, a member of the agency for clandestine service working on Iraqi weapons issues, suggested that you could be sent to investigate the reports.” The question is, how did a hooker-turned-reporter end up with this leak of classified information? Did White House officials hand it to Gannon/Guckert because he was in cahoots with them? Gannon has refused to say if he had a copy of this memo or if someone had read him what it said. In December 2003–when he was not under fire–Gannon/Guckert wrote that this “information did not come from inside the administration,” and he strongly hinted that his source was on Capitol Hill, referring to the Senate intelligence committee. Indeed, the Senate intelligence committee ended up quoting this document in a report released the following July. (The CIA claimed the memo was inaccurate.)
Gannon/Guckert has noted that FBI agents working on the Wilson leak probe did contact him and that he would not tell them the source of the information. Apparently, he has not been subpoenaed by Patrick Fitzgerald, the Justice Department attorney investigating the Wilson leak. Is it possible Gannon/Guckert was being truthful? If he had received the information from a congressional source, then Gannon could be beyond the reach of Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is looking into the initial leak and not whether GOP congressional investigators who were probing the Wilson affair subsequently disseminated information to undermine Wilson.
There has been some public confusion about this aspect of the Gannon/Guckert story. Representative Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat, has called upon Fitzgerald to “investigate the leaking of a classified Central Intelligence Agency memo containing the identity of undercover agent Valerie Plame to a man at the center of the White House Press Briefing Room scandal, ‘Jeff Gannon.'” The classified memo came not from the CIA but from the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and by the time its contents reached Gannon, Valerie Wilson (nee Plame) had already been identified as a CIA officer.
Gannon/Guckert, according to the record so far, was a bit player in the Wilson affair. The leak he received was an after-the-fact leak. But it is certainly rather curious that this particular reporter obtained any classified information from any government source. Slaughter and others are justified in calling for an investigation. It is not beyond belief that partisans in the White House or on Capitol Hill saw Gannon/Guckert as a safe outlet. But it is also possible his involvement in the Wilson affairs was more a sideshow than anything else.
The Gannon/Guckert affair–which has yielded serious questions the White House needs to address–has generated much chest-pounding within the world of liberal bloggers. I don’t begrudge the bloggers their victory lap–but it would not be good form to show too much glee. And Gannon/Guckert might be a smaller prize than assumed. (He’s no Dan Rather–or Armstrong Williams.) Then again, perhaps I am wrong; maybe pulling on this string will cause a larger scandal to unravel. I don’t discourage anyone from trying. Yet it could be that this story–regrettably–is mostly about a wannabe than the powers that be.
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