Call it "Gannongate."
Responding to a Feb. 8 Niagara Falls Reporter editorial, Congresswoman Louise Slaughter last week called on President George Bush to explain how a person operating under an assumed name and with no journalistic background managed to obtain access to the White House briefing room regularly for the past two years.
Additionally, Slaughter and Rep. John Conyers of Michigan have asked Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor investigating the leaking of an undercover CIA agent's name to the media, to look into allegations that the phony reporter played a hand in that affair.
James Dale "J.D." Guckert, 47 -- using the alias "Jeff Gannon" -- published what were essentially unedited White House press releases under his own byline on his personal Web site and that of Talon News, which has been shown to be a subsidiary of the right-wing organization GOPUSA.
Using his own name, Guckert also ran a number of gay porn Web sites, including one called Hotmilitarystud.com. A beefcake photo of a shirtless Guckert casting a come-hither look was available on his personal AOL site until it was taken down last week.
On the day Slaughter sent her letter to Bush, Guckert announced he had "resigned" from Talon News.
"In consideration of the welfare of me and my family I have decided to return to private life," he wrote in a weepy farewell post.
But Slaughter said her demands for an investigation into the scandal would go forward.
"This matter is growing more serious by the day. We now know that (Guckert) had access to classified CIA documents that contained the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame. This is more than an issue of media manipulation by the White House, this is now an issue of national security," she told the Reporter.
In the wake of the Reporter editorial and Slaughter's letter to Bush, major media outlets such as the Washington Post, CNN and "Salon" scrambled to do follow-up stories but, by week's end, it remained unclear how Guckert managed to insert himself into journalism's most elite club.
"What is the White House hiding?" Slaughter asked. "This man should never have been admitted into the White House briefing room in the first place. Someone let him in day after day. Someone gave him access to classified CIA documents. Someone must answer for this."
Records show that Talon News didn't even exist prior to March 29, 2003. Guckert was given his first White House pass just five days later, in apparent violation of the longstanding policy that journalists work for news organizations that "publish regularly."
He was frequently called on by White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan and Bush himself, and was known for lobbing softball questions critical of Democrats. Last month, he attributed a fake quote regarding soup lines to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. The next day, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh bragged to his millions of listeners that he had made the quote up as a joke on his show a few days earlier, and was surprised to hear it mentioned at Bush's press conference.
Slaughter said the Guckert scandal is especially troubling coming on the heels of revelations that the Bush administration paid right-wing pundits like Armstrong Williams, Maggie Gallagher and Mike McManus considerable sums to promote its agenda.
"I was already concerned about what appears to be an organized campaign to mask partisan propaganda as legitimate news by your administration," she wrote Bush. "That we have now learned this same type of deception is occurring inside the White House briefing room itself is even more disturbing."
But if Guckert's role as an administration stooge is disturbing, his role in outing undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame is downright sinister.
Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, had been sent to Africa by the CIA in 2002 to investigate allegations that Saddam Hussein was attempting to purchase yellow-cake uranium from Niger in order to construct a nuclear weapon. Wilson determined the stories were false, and reported his findings to Washington.
Wilson was stunned when Bush repeated the false claim in his Jan. 28, 2003 State of the Union address. On July 6, 2003, Wilson wrote an op-ed for The New York Times entitled "What I didn't find in Africa." The next day, the White House retracted the Niger claim.
Eight days later, right-wing pundit Robert Novak published a column exposing Plame's identity and claiming she had used her influence to have Wilson sent on the African assignment. It is a federal offense to reveal the name of an undercover intelligence operative.
"I didn't dig it out, it was given to me," Novak said at the time.
Many now suspect it was Guckert who did the giving. He was subpoenaed last year to appear before the federal grand jury looking into the affair, and has gone on the record saying he did indeed have access to classified CIA documents relating to Wilson and Plame. In their letter to Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor in the Plame case, Slaughter and Conyers demand answers.
"It appears that the White House was so focused on smearing the reputation of Ambassador Joseph Wilson, that it knowingly leaked his wife's identity to a Republican activist posing as a journalist," they wrote. "Whoever in this administration gave Mr. Guckert the memo risked Ms. Plame's very life and must be punished to the full extent of the law."
Guckert's involvement with several gay pornographic Web sites directed at members of the military has also raised questions. Paul Johnson was one of a number of advocates asking whether the sites were set up as part of an effort by the military to entrap gay service members.
"What has become of any membership list to his gay military sex sites?" Johnson wrote last week. "Were any names turned over to the Pentagon?"
The New York Daily News reported that an inordinate number of Gannon's Talon News contributions consisted of gay-bashing rants, including one detailing John Kerry's "pro-homosexual platform" that was headlined "Kerry Could Become First Gay President."
As the scandal unfolded last week, many in the legitimate news media were outraged. Kelly McBride, a media ethicist at the prestigious Poynter Institute, suspected complicity by the Bush administration.
"The White House shouldn't be putting in ringers to prevent the White House press corps from performing its watchdog duties," McBride said.
Appearing on MSNBC's "Countdown with Keith Olbermann," Dana Milbank of the Washington Post agreed.
"The fact is, he was representing a phony media company," Milbank said. "This guy is not a real journalist and he was hanging out there just wasting everyone's time in the press room." Reporter Publisher Bruce Battaglia called White House assertions that they have no control over who gets passes absurd.
"We do 22,000 print copies a week and have nearly a half-million Web visitors," he said. "To think we could walk in and get a pass to see the president is beyond belief. This is something that ought to be of concern to every journalist in America."
Rep. Slaughter deserves all the credit for having the courage to demand the investigations and blowing the lid off the story, he added.
"We brought the matter up and the congresswoman took it and ran with it," Battaglia said.
"Because of her, the Reporter has gotten coverage on CNN, in the Washington Post, 'Salon' and other major media outlets. Gannon's been exposed as the fraud he is and forced to resign. I'm glad we could be a small part of that, but it never would have happened without Rep. Slaughter."
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||Feb. 15 2005|