Monday, June 25, 2007

Rove, Smith and the Salmon--the Deeper Story

[Warning: wonky detail threat is orange for this post...]

Astute readers, or those who read most threads at Blue Oregon (and they are most often the same people) recall the new outbreak of stories about Karl Rove's potentially criminal--certainly greasy--influence on Gordon Smith's 2002 reelection. BlueO tips to the piece by Jason Leopold (a source I am not fully comfortable with) which uses the recently released deposition by Rove aide Susan Ralston {pdf} before Waxman's House Oversight Committee, to paint a larger picture of Rove repeatedly holding meetings in "target states" at federal agency offices to talk about how the political scene needed to be managed to support the President.

That's some crazy shit in it's own right; the White House is trying to weasel out by claiming no directives were given, but they were riding a razor's edge on the Hatch Act by holding partisan political policy meetings on federal property. So it's no wonder Leopold doesn't get sidetracked by the Klamath mention in Ralston's deposition. However for us there are key moments in her testimony that have direct impact on why Smith is running for reelection next fall, rather than sitting at home freezing peas. So the entire deposition is worth reading, and since we trudged over to Waxman's virtual office and rummaged through their files until we found it, you can read it too by following the link above.

It has been known for a fairly long time that Rove held a Powerpoint presentation in Klamath before the 2002 elections, and discussed the fact that Gordon Smith was running in Oregon and the farmers had always been staunch Smith voters (wink, wink). The scene as Rove set it:
On Jan. 5, Mr. Rove accompanied the president to an appearance in Portland with Mr. Smith. The president signaled his desire to accommodate agricultural interests, saying "We'll do everything we can to make sure water is available for those who farm."

The next day, Mr. Rove made sure that commitment didn't fall through the cracks. He visited the 50 Interior managers attending a department retreat at a Fish and Wildlife Service conference center in Shepherdstown, W.Va. In a PowerPoint presentation Mr. Rove also uses when soliciting Republican donors, he brought up the Klamath and made clear that the administration was siding with agricultural interests.

His remarks weren't entirely welcome -- especially by officials grappling with the competing arguments made by environmentalists, who wanted river levels high to protect endangered salmon, and Indian tribes, who depend on the salmon for their livelihoods. Neil McCaleb, then an assistant Interior secretary, recalls the "chilling effect" of Mr. Rove's remarks. Wayne Smith, then with the department's Bureau of Indian Affairs, says Mr. Rove reminded the managers of the need to "support our base." Both men since have left the department.
Senator Kerry got so far as to ask the Inspector General to investigate, and as perhaps you might expect he found no undue influence by Rove--and validated the science used to make the decision to divert water to irrigation. That kind of killed the story, obviously. But how well did the IG's office do their job? Under questioning by Waxman's committee, even with her bureaucratically convenient hazy memory she recalled that Klamath and Smith were a popular topic of conversation:
In 2002, were you familiar with a dispute in Oregon over whether or not to divert water from the Klamath Rìver Basin to nearby farms?
A: I recall that.
What was Mr. Rove's involvement in that dìspute?
A: You know, I do not remember the exact details, but there were djscussions with Barry Jackson, and I guess it would have been Ken Plehlman at the time for the 0ffice of Politìcal Affairs, but as a policy matter, they did discuss it.
Barry Jackson, Ken Mehlman and Mr. Rove discussed this issue?
A: Correct.
Was anyone else involved?
A: Well, as I recall, this subject did come up frequently in our directors meetings. We had a directors' meeting every day, pretty much every day.
What is a "directors' meeting" ?
A: It would be, the participants would have been Karl, myself , Israet Hernandez, each of the directors of the four offices that he managed, and sometimes those directors would bring a deputy, and thjs meetìng was held in his office.
In Karl Rove's office?
A: Correct. And we met almost every day.
For how long was the subject of the "Klamath River Basin water diversion" issue a topìc of these directors' meetings?
A: Oh, I can't say specifically, but it was definìtely mentioned on multiple occasions.

Were you aware that the Interior Department's inspector general investigated the White House's involvement in the Interìor Department's decision about Klamath River water levels?
A: I do not remember that.
It kept coming up at Karl Rove's daily meetings of all the office heads and their deputies. Somehow, this did not raise the suspicion of the Inspector General--why it kept coming up in a political policy office what civil service agencies were doing in the Klamath Basin--for as Ralston notes, she can't even recall the investigation in the first place. How would the top aide to Karl Rove not remember whether there was an investigation? Come on, now--unless it was so feeble it could legitimately be forgotten.

Maybe it was--it's unclear whether White House emails were examined by the IG, but according to Ralston they certainly never asked to see any of the emails Rove sent via RNC servers, which now appear to be where all the skeletons were buried. Again, from the deposition:
Beyond Mr. Fitzgerald's requests, were there other requests from other investigators for Mr. Rove's e-mails?
A: There may have been, but the only other major investigation that I recall specifically was related to Enron.
Do you know when that would have been?
A: I believe that was in 2001 sometime.
And you think in 2001- that Mr. Rove searched his e-mails to respond to a request from investigators relating to Enron?
A: He or I searched.
And that search included a search of political e-mails sent over the political account?
A: Correct.
Were other White House officials aware that Mr. Rove in 2001- was providing e-mails from his political accounts to investigators who were looking at Enron?
A: I believe so, because all of the documents that we collected were then turned over to the White House Counsel's Office.
No wonder the IG didn't find anything to nail Rove with on the river diversion; either their office was ignorant of the fact that he was conducting most of his White House business over RNC email systems--or they knew and opted not to pry. And beyond the unexamined emails, there doesn't appear to have been much of any serious investigating going on, given that Ralston can't even remember there being one.

So let's be clear on what we have:
  • Karl Rove taking great interest in water policy in Oregon, coincidentally at the same time Gordon Smith was running for reelection
  • Karl Rove meeting on federal property to make clear that the administration sided with the farmers.
  • Karl Rove meeting with the farmers to make clear the administration sided with them.
  • Two federal agencies which cited their best available evidence (the appropriate standard for decisionmaking in this case) had their findings overruled on the basis of inconclusivity (which is NOT the appropriate standard), with the excuse that an important report used in the original findings was only a draft report and could not be considered definitive--even though the overruling report was itself an interim set of conclusions.
  • A federal judge rejecting the Bush administration's plan for allocating water in the basin, which favored farmers. One of the principal biologists working on the plan claims his drafted opinions were twice rejected by the Bureau of Reclamation, which created the plan, in favor of those which afforded farmers more water.
  • When Rep. Greg Walden discovered water might be restricted to farmers, his first call went to Karl Rove. The plan was dropped.
  • An investigation was done into the possible influence of the White House--but the prime target's top aide can't even remember that there was one, and no pertinent emails outside of White House channels were ever reviewed.
Something stinks, and it isn't old salmon.

[postscript--for further reading on this highly complex subject, you might try some of these sources...]

For info on the Endangered Species Act and how it applies to salmon in the Klamath Basin, this online book is rich with detailed information.

For the House Democrats' perspective on how dirty this all is, this is a good source.

For California state officials' endorsement and opinion on the "Hardy Phase II" report, which was the primary document suggested the need for higher water flows protecting the salmon, read this pdf. To see opposing views on it from the farmers, this doc is appropriate.

More documentation on the efficacy of reducing water flows is here; this report attempts to show that revenue from recreation well exceeds the potential for revenue from farming if water is diverted. Neither this report nor the Hardy study were ever allowed to go past draft form, House Democrats allege.

And for a rich trove of timelined links on both sides of the issue, here's a resource page from a UO professor on watershed science and policy.

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