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Pentagon tipped off Pelosi on FOIA request on bogus ‘Planegate’ controversy

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Leaks don’t always flow towards the outside press, sometimes the drips are meant to stay on the inside.

Nearly two years ago, shortly after Democrats retook the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) faced a firestorm of criticism over a story that later was shown to be bogus.

Writing for Think Progress in February of 2007, current Huffington Post editor Nico Pitney wrote, “On February 1, the Washington Times published a story titled ‘Speaker pursues military flights,’ which claimed that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) had been “pressing the Bush administration for routine access to military aircraft for domestic flights, such as trips back to her San Francisco district.’ Former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) also used military aircraft to travel to his district. However, the Times reported, Pelosi is ‘demanding permanent access to a large military jet for herself, her staff, other Members and supporters.’”

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Dubbing the affair “planegate,” conservatives mounted an all-out assault on Pelosi. ABC News was criticized by some liberals for adopting the planegate moniker without reservations (however, they did later refute the charges).

Pitney noted in 2007:

The story was disseminated widely through right-wing talk radio and blogs, spurring posts like, “First Class Pelosi,” “Air Force Becomes Pelosi Air,” “Nancy Pelosi is Drunk With Power,” “The Imperial Speakership,” “Pelosi: Fly Me Awayyyyy,” “Pelosi wants military airlift,” and “Nancy Pelosi’s Private Military Plane.”

Despite the fact that on February 7, 2007 the House Sergeant at Arms defended Pelosi in a statement which said that it was “reasonable and prudent to provide military aircraft to the Speaker for official travel between Washington and her district” the controversy wouldn’t go away.

Bill Livingwood’s statement even noted that the last House speaker, a Republican, had had the same arrangement:

As the Sergeant at Arms, I have the responsibility to ensure the security of the members of the House of Representatives, to include the Speaker of the House. The Speaker requires additional precautions due to her responsibilities as the leader of the House and her Constitutional position as second in the line of succession to the presidency.

In a post 9/11 threat environment, it is reasonable and prudent to provide military aircraft to the Speaker for official travel between Washington and her district. The practice began with Speaker Hastert and I have recommended that it continue with Speaker Pelosi. The fact that Speaker Pelosi lives in California compelled me to request an aircraft that is capable of making non-stop flights for security purposes, unless such an aircraft is unavailable. This will ensure communications capabilities and also enhance security. I made the recommendation to use military aircraft based upon the need to provide necessary levels of security for ranking national leaders, such as the Speaker. I regret that an issue that is exclusively considered and decided in a security context has evolved into a political issue.

Over a month and a half later, the non-partisan Factcheck.org was forced to again “refute” the Republican charges against Pelosi:

The conservative Web site Judicial Watch has made public e-mails to and from the Department of Defense regarding Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s travel requests. The organization claims in a press release that these e-mails show Pelosi “issue[s] unreasonable requests for military travel” and “treats the Air Force like her personal airline.” A number of readers have asked us for our response to this information, given that we have debunked claims about Pelosi’s air travel. Some readers have even demanded that we correct our story.

However, the e-mails posted by Judicial Watch don’t refute our story — in fact, they back up what we’ve said. Just to recap: In December, e-mail rumors circulated that Pelosi had demanded the use of a lavish Air Force jet at taxpayer expense. We wrote that it had become standard practice after September 11 for the speaker of the House to have access to a military jet for shuttles back to his or her home district for security reasons — the speaker is No. 2 in the line of presidential succession, and the previous speaker, Republican Dennis Hastert, used a military jet, too.

However, for some reason, a DC-based newspaper decided that it wanted to file a Freedom of Information Act request over two-and-a-half-years later in 2009 to find out more details.

Roll Call‘s Paul Singer pulls back the curtain a bit to show how government agencies can sometimes attempt to aid one another “out of common courtesy.”

Five months ago, Roll Call asked the Defense Department for documents relating to Congressional travel on military aircraft.

The Pentagon has not yet responded to the request, but last week a spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) contacted Roll Call to inquire about “your FOIA request on the Speaker.”

Apparently, the Defense Department notified Pelosi that Roll Call was asking for Congressional travel records that involve her office.

Singer notes that “Freedom of Information Act experts say there is probably nothing illegal about the military tipping off Members that a reporter is snooping around, as long as it is clear that a Member of Congress has no role in deciding what information the military is required to release,” and that Pelosi’s office didn’t think it was “unusual.”

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“The Speaker strongly supports the Freedom of Information Act,” Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill wrote. “It is not unusual for agencies to provide such information nor is it particularly newsworthy to be notified that an agency is following the law by responding to a request under FOIA.”

Singer adds, “But the military apparently has no official policy of alerting Members to FOIA requests that involve them. Instead, Pentagon officials say, it is more or less an ad hoc courtesy extended when it seems the subject matter is likely to be sensitive or of broad interest.”

One Pentagon FOIA officer who asked not to be identified by name said: “There is no formal policy. … They are not necessarily made aware of the request, but … out of common courtesy and typically because of the level of interest, we do inform the office of the Congressman of the inquiry.”

Defense spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said in an e-mail, “FOIA requests are not secret or confidential, and informing Members of Congress whose names are contained in records that are responsive to requests is a courtesy appropriate to a co-equal branch of the government.”

FULL SUBSCRIPTION-ONLY ARTICLE CAN BE READ AT ROLL CALL


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