By Paul Kane
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
White House aides have conducted at least half a dozen political briefings for the Bush administration's top diplomats, including a PowerPoint presentation for ambassadors with senior adviser Karl Rove that named Democratic incumbents targeted for defeat in 2008 and a "general political briefing" at the Peace Corps headquarters after the 2002 midterm elections.
The briefings, mostly run by Rove's deputies at the White House political affairs office, began in early 2001 and included detailed analyses for senior officials of the political landscape surrounding critical congressional and gubernatorial races, according to documents obtained by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The documents show for the first time how the White House sought to ensure that even its appointees involved in foreign policy were kept attuned to the administration's election goals. Such briefings occurred semi-regularly over the past six years for staffers dealing with domestic policy, White House officials have previously acknowledged.
In one instance, State Department aides attended a White House meeting at which political officials examined the 55 most critical House races for 2002 and the media markets most critical to battleground states for President Bush's reelection fight in 2004, according to documents the department provided to the Senate committee.
On Jan. 4, just after the 2006 elections tossed the Republicans out of congressional power, Rove met at the White House with six U.S. ambassadors to key European missions and the consul general to Bermuda while the diplomats were in Washington for a State Department conference.
According to a department letter to the Senate panel, Rove explained the White House views on the electoral disaster while Sara M. Taylor, then the director of White House political affairs, showed a PowerPoint presentation that pinned most of the electoral blame on "corrupt" GOP lawmakers and "complacent incumbents." One chart in Taylor's presentation highlighted the GOP's top 36 targets among House Democrats for the 2008 election.
In a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, asked whether the briefings inappropriately politicized the diplomatic agencies or violated prohibitions against political work by most federal employees.
"I do not understand why ambassadors, in Washington on official duty, would be briefed by White House officials on which Democratic House members are considered top targets by the Republican party for defeat in 2008. Nor do I understand why department employees would need to be briefed on 'key media markets' in states that are 'competitive' for the president," Biden wrote.
His aides said Biden plans to raise the matter at a confirmation hearing today for Henrietta Holsman Fore to be administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, whose political appointees received at least two White House briefings in the past 10 months, as well as at an oversight hearing tomorrow on the Peace Corps.
Several months ago, White House aides said that about 20 private briefings were held in 15 agencies before the 2006 midterms and that other briefings were held irregularly throughout Bush's first term.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel found, in a May report, that General Services Administration chief Lurita Alexis Doan violated the Hatch Act when she allegedly asked GSA political appointees how they could "help our candidates" win the next election at a January briefing by White House officials. The Hatch Act insulates virtually all federal workers from partisan politics and bars the use of federal resources -- including office buildings, phones and computers -- for partisan purposes.
Doan has denied any wrongdoing.
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.