"Go ahead, Jeff": Talon News "reporter" Jeff Gannon is McClellan's lifeline during briefings

››› ››› SIMON MALOY & ADAM HUNDT

Talon News "reporter" Jeff Gannon's softball questions often steer White House press secretary Scott McClellan away from more difficult inquiries raised during White House press briefings; on several occasions, McClellan has turned to Gannon for his questions after other press corps members have asked pointed questions on controversial topics. In reviewing White House press conferences from the past year, Media Matters for America has noted numerous instances in which Gannon's lobs -- leading questions that often include false assumptions favorable to the Bush administration -- have allowed McClellan to move to friendlier turf, away from having to answer questions on such issues as the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment; the Bush administration's relationship with former Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi; the growing trade deficit with China; and President Bush's Texas Air National Guard record. Some examples:

"Is this another piece of evidence showing the direct terror ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda?"

During the August 9, 2004, White House press briefing, a reporter repeatedly asked McClellan whether American forces had killed any innocent people in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The next reporter questioned McClellan on the president's opinion of Ahmad Chalabi (the Bush administration initially supported Chalabi as a candidate to head Iraq's interim government, but rescinded that support after Iraqi forces issued warrants for his arrest on counterfeiting charges, and after he was accused of giving classified U.S. intelligence to Iran and providing incorrect reports about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, according to an August 9, 2004, New York Times article reprinted in the Houston Chronicle). After responding, McClellan turned to Gannon for two questions:

From the White House website's transcript of the August 9, 2004, briefing:

MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead, Jeff.

Q: Thank you. The imam [Yassin M. Aref] that was arrested in [Albany] New York last week was discovered because his name appeared in a Rolodex in a terrorist training camp in Iraq before the war. The book was found after, by U.S. troops, but he was in Iraq before the war. Is this another piece of evidence showing the direct terror ties between Iraq and al Qaeda?

MR. McCLELLAN: One, that's an ongoing investigation. I think the questions related to those particular individuals are best directed to the Department of Justice. And so that's -- I would refer any questions about that investigation to the Department of Justice. We are continuing to wage the war on terrorism on many fronts, both abroad and at home. And I think you're seeing that through the actions that we are taking.

Q: Let me follow up with a second question. How damaging was the revelation of the deepest mole that we've ever had in al Qaeda? The publication of that man's name by The New York Times -- how damaging is that to our war on terror?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry -- which specific instance are you referring to?

Q: The New York Times published the name of Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, who was described by intelligence officials as the only deep mole we've ever had within al Qaeda.

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not sure where it was published, first. Obviously, it was published recently -- the capture of this individual. It is important that we recognize that sometimes there are ongoing operations underway. And as we move forward on capturing or bringing to justice al Qaeda members, we need to keep that in mind. And sometimes we aren't able to go into as much detail we would like to because of those ongoing operations. And I think everybody has a responsibility to keep that in mind.

"Doesn't [former Ambassador] Joe Wilson owe the President and America an apology?"

During a July 15, 2004, press conference, McClellan again turned to Gannon following questions from reporters about the president's position on the Federal Marriage Amendment; the president's opinion of fundraising consultant Mike Rogers's campaign (detailed in a Washington Post article) to disclose the sexual orientation of gay staffers working for senators and representatives who supported the amendment; and whether Lynne Cheney's opposition to the amendment constituted the first time a vice president's wife had ever publicly opposed the president's policies. After responding, McClellan accepted questions from Gannon, who promptly shifted the focus.

From the White House transcript:

MR. McCLELLAN: Two questions a day. Go ahead, Jeff.

[...]

Q: Last Friday, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report that shows that Ambassador Joe Wilson lied when he said his wife didn't put him up for the mission to Niger. The British inquiry into their own prewar intelligence yesterday concluded that the President's 16 words ["The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa"] were "well-founded." Doesn't Joe Wilson owe the President and America an apology for his deception and his own intelligence failure?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, one, let me point out that I think those reports speak for themselves on that issue. And I think if you have questions about that, you can direct that to Mr. Wilson.

Contrary to Gannon's assertion, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report contained no conclusions regarding Wilson's truthfulness about his wife's purported involvement in his appointment to the Niger mission. As for Gannon's citation of the "British inquiry" regarding the "President's 16 words" in the 2003 State of the Union address, and Gannon's claim of an "intelligence failure" on Wilson's part, then-director of central intelligence George J. Tenet stated in a press release that "[t]hese 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the President."

As Media Matters previously noted, when the federal grand jury investigating the leak of the identity of CIA covert operative Valerie Plame subpoenaed White House records on contacts with journalists, Gannon was reportedly among them. WashingtonPost.com "White House Briefing" columnist Dan Froomkin explained in his March 10, 2004, column that "the reason Gannon is on the list is most likely an attempt to find out who gave him a secret memo that he mentioned in an interview he had with Plame's husband, former ambassador and administration critic Joseph Wilson."

"[D]oesn't that, combined with the now proven Al Qaeda link between Iraq ... unequivocally make the case for going to war in Iraq?"

On June 15, 2004, after reporters asked McClellan a series of questions about the United States' growing trade deficit with China, reports of strained American relations with Egypt, and American forces' interrogation of Saddam Hussein and his top officials, McClellan again turned to Gannon:

From the White House press briefing transcript:

MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead, Jeff. You had one.

Q: Thanks. Why hasn't the administration made more of the U.N. inspectors' report that says Saddam Hussein was dismantling his missile and WMD [weapons of mass destruction] sites before and during the war? And doesn't that, combined with the now-proven al Qaeda link between Iraq -- between Saddam Hussein and the terrorist organization -- unequivocally make the case for going to war in Iraq?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think in terms of Iraq and ties to terrorism, Secretary Powell outlined the former regime's support for and ties to terrorists when he went before the United Nations. Director Tenet has testified in open session before Congress about what we know about those ties. You heard the President talk about some of those ties earlier today in the Rose Garden when he was asked a question. So I think those ties are well known, and we have talked about them previously. Certainly, when you look at someone like al Zarqawi, he was an individual who was in Iraq prior to the decision to go to war, and he is someone who remains in Iraq. And he is a senior al Qaeda associate.

"I'd like to comment on the angry mob that surrounded [senior Bush adviser] Karl Rove's house."

On April 1, 2004, reporters asked McClellan to offer the president's stance on claims that the Unborn Victims of Violence Act was an attempt to "chip away at Roe v. Wade" and explain what the president would say to mollify those who held that concern. After answering, McClellan acknowledged Gannon, who shifted the focus of the questions -- without actually asking a question:

From the White House press briefing transcript:

MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead, Jeff.

Q: I'd like to comment on the angry mob that surrounded [senior Bush adviser] Karl Rove's house on Sunday. They chanted and pounded on the windows until the D.C. police and Secret Service were called in. The protest was organized by the National People's Action Coalition, whose members receive taxpayer funds, as well as financial support from groups including Theresa [sic] Heinz Kerry's Tides Foundation.

MR. McCLELLAN: I would just say that, one, we appreciate and understand concerns that people may have. I would certainly hope that people would respect the families of White House staff.

Gannon's description of Teresa Heinz Kerry's financial relationship to the Tides Foundation echoed similar distortions from other conservative media figures. As Media Matters for America documented, a Tides Foundation statement maintained that "by legally binding contract, every penny of Heinz's support to Tides has been explicitly directed to specific projects in Pennsylvania."

"Did he make speeches alongside Jane Fonda?"

During a February 10, 2004, press conference, McClellan fielded a long series of questions about gaps in Bush's Texas Air National Guard record, before acknowledging Gannon, who shifted the subject of the questions by attacking and distorting Senator John Kerry's war record through the following question.

From the White House transcript of the press conference:

Q: Are you ready to take questions on a different subject?

MR. McCLELLAN: We're still on this topic, right?

Q: Since there have been so many questions about what the President was doing over 30 years ago, what is it that he did after his honorable discharge from the National Guard? Did he make speeches alongside [actress and anti-Vietnam War activist] Jane Fonda, denouncing America's racist war in Vietnam? Did he testify before Congress that American troops committed war crimes in Vietnam? And did he throw somebody else's medals at the White House to protest a war America was still fighting? What was he doing after he was honorably discharged?

MR. McCLELLAN: We've already commented on some of his [Bush's] views relating back to that period the other day. And, obviously, this was a time period also when he was going to get his MBA at Harvard. But the President was certainly proud to serve in the National Guard.

Q: And would the White House consider those actions by Senator Kerry, that Jeff mentions fair game in the political season?

Media Matters for America documented the oft-used conservative smear tactic of attempting to link Senator Kerry to Jane Fonda, despite the fact the two had very little contact during the anti-Vietnam War movement.

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