The Bush Administration has installed hacks across the federal bureaucracy, with Michael Brown, the man who helped destroy New Orleans while director of FEMA, as only the most notorious example. Now the Pentagon’s public affairs division has become a dumping ground for administration cronies.
I touched upon this topic last week in an article about Dorrance Smith, a former senior advisor to President Bush 41 and now assistant secretary of defense for public affairs under Bush 43. In 2006, when the press and retired senior military officials were pummeling Donald Rumsfeld, Smith created a rapid-response team of die-hard loyalists to defend the then-defense secretary.
The rapid-response team has been shut down but several sources tell me that another of Smith’s spin projects is ongoing. This project seeks to bypass the traditional media and work directly with talk radio and bloggers, mostly those with a heavily conservative tilt. The unit, which one source says was originally called “Surrogates Operation” but was later rechristened “Communications Outreach,” also reportedly provides talking points and briefings to retired military officials who now support the administration in appearances as media pundits. (I haven’t been able to learn which blogs and individuals the unit has been working with, but urge anyone with such information to contact me via email.)
To head up the unit, Smith brought in Erin Healey, a former junior assistant press secretary at the White House. (Healey has not replied to a phone call seeking comment; if she does, I’ll update this story.) She was reportedly hired as a contractor, and later given a political appointee position. Also reportedly working with the unit is Julie George, who formerly worked as deputy coalitions director for Rick Santorum’s losing senatorial re-election campaign in 2006. Curiously, Santorum was one of only two senators to vote against the confirmation of current defense secretary Robert Gates, who Santorum said was not “up to the task” of fighting terrorism. Another person reportedly involved with the operation is Jocelyn Webster, who formerly worked in the White House’s political operation for Sara Taylor, the Karl Rove aide who now finds herself in a bit of hot water.
Webster’s name has surfaced twice in investigations led by Congressman Henry Waxman, head of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. First, she was found to be on the list of current and former White House officials who used political e-mail accounts provided by the Republican National Committee. Webster was also found to have used that e-mail account to send a message about the controversial briefing that her former boss, deputy White House political director J. Scott Jennings, gave to Lurita Doan and several dozen political appointees at the General Services Administration. The e-mail contained a copy of the slides Jennings used in the presentation and said, “Please do not e-mail this out or let people see it. It is a close hold, and we’re not supposed to be e-mailing it around.”
Healey may have some knowledge of defense matters, but she’s certainly no expert. Webster and George were described to me by one well-informed source as “very young with no background in national security or foreign affairs.” This person said that some defense officials have been “put off to say the least by these neophyte political appointees telling retired and active personnel in uniform what to say and what to think.”
All this is typical of the current dysfunction at public affairs under Smith, who has surrounded himself with inexperienced political staffers. An example came with the bungled announcement last month that Marine General Peter Pace would be replaced as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Pace was widely liked within the military, and the mishandling of his departure–he was not reappointed to his position, and submitted his resignation only after Gates announced he would be replaced–did not sit well with many in the armed forces.
The irony here is that Gates has a far better relationship with the media than Rumsfeld, who treated journalists as the enemy. But with Smith running amok, Gates’s honeymoon with the media and with the military may be coming to an end.