By: Joe Strupp
Talon News reporter James D. Guckert got to ask questions at White House press briefings for nearly two years, but White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan didn’t know he was using an alias until the past few weeks, McClellan told E&P today.
Asked if he had discussed the Guckert/Gannon episode with President Bush, McClellan said, “We’ve only talked about it briefly,” but declined to be more specific. “He’s got a lot of other priorities,” McClellan added.
McClellan also said he was unaware of Talon News’ ties to the Texas Republican Party until recently, when scrutiny of Guckert, also known as Jeff Gannon, increased after he asked President Bush a question at a press conference last month.
“I first came across him two years ago when I was deputy press secretary and he started covering the White House,” McClellan said about Guckert during a phone interview with E&P. “I knew he asked questions from a conservative viewpoint, but that was all.”
McClellan added that he had known “relatively little” about Talon News, Guckert’s former employer, which is linked to GOPUSA.com, a Republican Web site with ties to Texas Republican groups. “I knew it was a conservative Web site that reported news,” he said.
Asked if ?anyone there? was aware of Guckert before he started showing up for briefings, McClellan said: ?No.?
Although his office handles credentials, McClellan said he did not find out that “Gannon” was an alias, or that Talon News had political party links, until recently, when blogs and news organizations began to question Guckert’s credentialing. “I checked into it more recently,” he told E&P, adding that “the president didn’t know who he was.”
McClellan also said he did not believe Bush knew Bobby Eberle, the owner of GOPUSA.com and Talon News, despite the fact that Eberle is a Texas Republican activist and was a delegate to the 2000 GOP convention.
“I don’t think he [Bush] has ever known him; I don’t think he has ever met him,” McClellan told E&P. “I have never asked the president, but I don’t think so.” Guckert received White House “day pass” credentials within days of signing on with Eberle’s obscure Web site in the spring of 2003.
Last week, Guckert, who resigned from Talon News on Wednesday after his real name and links to sex sites were exposed by bloggers–and has also been questioned by the FBI in the Valerie Plame case–told E&P that he attended four Bush press conferences since mid-2003. He also appeared at press briefings regularly. McClellan always called on him as ?Jeff.?
Asked if he’d ever talked with Guckert outside the briefing room or at social events, McClellan said, ?Nothing like that.?
The press secretary also did not find fault with Guckert, who has admitted that he set up escort-service Web sites, reporting from the White House under an alias, as long as his legal name was the basis of his security review. “People use aliases all the time in life,” McClellan said, “from journalists to actors. He was cleared under his legal name.”
Asked if he knew any other White House reporters who had used an alias, McClellan declined, saying he didn’t know.
McClellan stressed that he personally plays no part in who is credentialed and he likes it that way. But he saw no problem with Guckert attending press events, even four presidential press conferences, since he passed the required security reviews. “He was cleared in and received day passes under his legal name,” said McClellan, “In terms of the news organization, he showed he represented a news organization that published regularly, and it was not a process I was involved in.”
When asked if Guckert’s link to several explicit online sites should have had an effect on his getting credentials, McClellan said, “I don’t think it is my place to express my personal opinion.” But, he added, “I wasn’t aware of any of that.”
Asked if Guckert would get credentials if he hooked up now with a news organizaton, he said, ?I’m not involved with that process,? but he sidestepped the question, saying he didn’t think Guckert would apply again.
McClellan said the credentialing process is worth reviewing, but stressed that he does not want to be the one deciding who is credentialed. “If a press secretary starts getting into picking and choosing, people would have more concerns about that,” he stated. “I don’t think it is for me to judge.”
As for partisan questions, McClellan said Guckert was not the first or only reporter at press events to ask politically leaning questions, and saw nothing wrong with them. “There are a number of people in the room who express certain points of view and cross the lines of advocacy journalism,” McClellan said, declining to cite specific names. “I welcome the diversity, it has gone on for a long time.”