By: Joe Strupp
Former Talon News reporter James Guckert obtained his first White House press credentials as a representative of the pro-Republican Web site, GOPUSA, not as a Talon News reporter, as previously believed, Press Secretary Scott McClellan told E&P today.
McClellan said White House Press Office staffers considered the openly partisan site to be a legitimate news organization when they gave Guckert, a.k.a. Jeff Gannon, the first of numerous day passes in February 2003.
“He faxed a letter in on his [GOPUSA] letterhead, they checked that it was a conservative news Web site he worked for,” McClellan explained, referring to his staffers who handled such credentialing at the time. “There was a check to make sure it was a news organization and a news Web site. There was a determination made at that point [that it was legitimate].”
McClellan, who was deputy press secretary under Ari Fleischer when the initial Guckert approvals were given, became press secretary in July 2003. He said he currently has a staff of 12, only one of whom handles the 20 to 25 daily press passes issued each day. He said he had spoken with the staffer who approved Guckert’s initial credential, but would not identify the person or comment on how he or she could consider GOPUSA — which is run by Texas Republican activist Bobby Eberle — to be a legitimate news organization.
“Our staff assistants do a good job,” he said. “The staff assistant went to verify that the news organization existed.”
However, Eberle has told The New York Times that he later created Talon to build a news service with a conservative slant and “if someone were to see ‘GOPUSA,’ there’s an instant built-in bias there.”
Talon News, for whom Guckert later obtained daily credentials, did not launch until April 2003. Speculation has arisen in recent days that Guckert had somehow obtained access to White House briefings before Talon News officially launched, after videos and transcripts of his presence at briefings as early as February 2003 were revealed.
White House credential rules state that reporters may only obtain credentials if they represent a news organization that “regularly publishes” — which would have eliminated Talon News in February 2003, as it did not exist then.
Fleischer told E&P yesterday that he had concerns in 2003 that GOPUSA was not a legitimate news service and might have Republican Party ties, and he stopped calling on Guckert at briefings for about a week. But, after speaking with GOPUSA and Talon News owner Eberle, and being assured that the sites supposedly had no connection to the party, he resumed calling on Guckert.
McClellan confirmed that such concerns were raised. “I remember when Ari and I talked about it, we were concerned who he represented and checked with staff who said he represented a conservative news Web site named GOPUSA,” McClellan said. “We were concerned because he was a new face in the White House. I think we did ask questions about it and Ari talked to the editor.”
McClellan said he was not concerned with Guckert’s affiliation at anytime after Fleischer’s initial concern.
When asked if his office should assign more than one full-time person to handle credentialing, he did not believe it was necessary. “There is one person who has primary responsibility for it and there is another who provides support if needed,” he said. “It is essentially the same setup that was used in the Clinton administration.”
McClellan has said repeatedly during the Guckert scandal that he is not involved in daily credentialing and does not wish to be more involved. The issue came to a head in recent weeks after Guckert, who resigned more than a week ago from Talon News, asked a question at a Bush press conference last month that many considered partisan.
Since then, details about his operating under a fake name and having ties to several sex Web sites, as well as to alleged prostitution, have propelled Guckert and the White House Press Office into the spotlight.
In addition, Guckert has garnered notice for reporting that he had seen documents related to the Valerie Plame case and had been interviewed by the FBI on the matter. McClellan declined to say anything about the case, noting “There is still an ongoing investigation.”
He also said that Maurren Dowd’s column in The New York Times did not tell the whole story about her credentialing woes, pointing that she was refering to a “hard” pass while Gannon only received day passes. He said he has now asked his staff to get the process going for her again to get a hard pass.