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Diplomats Received Political Briefings

The political briefings with diplomats were conducted mostly by deputies to Karl Rove, President Bush's top adviser. At least half a dozen have been held.
The political briefings with diplomats were conducted mostly by deputies to Karl Rove, President Bush's top adviser. At least half a dozen have been held. (By Gerald Herbert -- Associated Press)

Spokesmen for the State Department, the Peace Corps and USAID said that only political appointees were invited to the briefings and that attendance was not compulsory. They also said that no specific actions were subsequently taken to boost political campaigns.

"We believe that these briefings were entirely appropriate," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "They conformed with all the applicable regulations."

The ambassadors included in the Rove briefing were Eduardo Aguirre Jr. of Spain, James P. Cain of Denmark, Alfred Hoffman Jr. of Portugal, Ronald Spogli of Italy, Craig Stapleton of France and Robert Tuttle of Britain. Gregory Slayton, the consul general to Bermuda, also attended.

In total, the seven diplomats donated more than $1.6 million to Republican causes from 2000 through 2006, according to a Center for Responsive Politics report on large Bush donors who were named ambassadors. The State Department, in a letter to Biden, said that Cain -- one of Bush's top fundraisers in North Carolina -- requested the meeting with Rove and did not notify department officials in advance.

The briefings struck some former ambassadors as highly unusual.

"That just didn't happen. Frankly, I am shocked to hear it," said former senator James Sasser (D-Tenn.), who served as President Bill Clinton's ambassador to China in the late 1990s. "I'm one who strongly believes that politics ought to end at the water's edge."

James Dobbins, who was an ambassador in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, said that some senior diplomats and State Department officials come from political backgrounds and stay informed through back channels.

But Dobbins, who rose through the Foreign Service ranks, said that he never attended an organized meeting for political appointees.

"I don't know of any methodical effort to inform presidential appointees of the state of play in the domestic political arena," he said.

The Peace Corps briefing occurred in 2003 with about 15 political appointees, said Amanda Beck, a spokeswoman for the agency. The central mission of the Peace Corps is sending volunteers into Third World nations to help with development.

Beck, who said she attended the March 2003 "recap" of the 2002 elections, said the appointees who attended the briefing "did it on our free time during the day." She added: "It was a courtesy to political appointees," offered by the White House, and "there was no suggestion of getting involved in anything" campaign related.

J. Scott Jennings, the White House political director, separately led two briefings for USAID officials, one last fall before the midterm elections and another in February, with 20 to 30 aides on hand for each. One was held at the agency's headquarters, and the second was held at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, according to an agency letter to Biden.

White House spokesman Scott Stanzel dismissed Biden's notion that ambassadors and political appointees from agencies such as the Peace Corps should be walled off from partisan politics. "Why shouldn't the president's appointees have our understanding of the political landscape?" he asked.

Biden sent letters in early May to Rice and the heads of six other agencies under his committee's jurisdiction after an April 26 report in The Washington Post about briefings from Taylor and Jennings. Four of the agencies -- the Overseas Private Investment Corp., the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency and the Millennium Challenge Corp. -- reported that no political briefings were held for their top officials.

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