It’s not surprising that a lot of accusations are made in a presidential campaign. What is surprising is for the accuser to get his official comeuppance so early in the contest.
In one small case, however, that’s exactly what has happened. And the accuser who has gotten his comeuppance is the Democratic candidate for president.
Last year, Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.)–who at the time was watching his presidential hopes disappear in the face of the Howard Dean juggernaut — sided with environmentalists who were accusing the Bush administration of using political muscle to influence a key environmental decision in the Pacific Northwest.
The decision involved a longstanding dispute between farmers and environmentalists in Oregon’s Klamath River Basin. The farmers wanted water diverted from the river to help save crops from drought, while the environmentalists opposed the diversion because it would kill thousands of salmon.
The administration ultimately ruled in favor of the farmers.
Last July, the Wall Street Journal reported that in January 2003, while the issue was still under consideration at the Interior Department, White House political chief Karl Rove mentioned it during a meeting with top department officials. Environmentalists immediately claimed that Rove, concerned about keeping GOP-leaning farmers happy, had intimidated Interior officials into ruling in favor of the water diversion.
And that’s where John Kerry came in. A week after the Journal article appeared, Kerry–acting in his capacity as senator, not candidate–demanded that Interior Department inspector general Earl Devaney investigate Rove’s alleged role in the Klamath decision. Devaney agreed.
Kerry was triumphal. “The Bush administration has acted as if federal agencies like the Interior Department are a division of the Republican National Committee and at their disposal to give out political favors,” he crowed. “The Klamath decision should have been based on law and science, and not a political operative’s agenda, polls, and campaign priorities.”
Kerry’s allies were triumphal, too. When Bush visited Oregon in August, the Oregon Natural Resources Council released a press statement headlined, “Klamath Salmon-Gate Scandal Hounds Bush Tour.”
When Devaney began the investigation, he focused on three major issues, which he outlined in a letter to Kerry. The first was how the decision would have been made if normal regulatory procedures had been followed. The second was what process actually took place in the Klamath Basin matter. The third was, in Devaney’s words, “How the Klamath Basin matter deviated from the norm (if at all) with special attention being paid to: a) the science, b) any suppressed information, [and] c) any evidence of political interference.”
“I anxiously await their decision,” Kerry said on September 5, 2003, when the investigation was announced.
Well, now that decision is here, and Kerry has been noticeably quieter about it.
In a March 1 letter to Kerry, advising him of the results of the investigation, Devaney shot down all of Kerry’s accusations.
Devaney said his investigators interviewed all the officials and reviewed all the documents involved in the decision. He explained that the Klamath River issue was one that involved “fiercely competing interests,” not only among the farmers and the environmentalists, but “even among opposing federal officials relating to the use and/or conservation of limited water resources.”
Nevertheless, Devaney found that the “the administration process followed in this matter did not deviate from the norm”: “We found no evidence of political influence affecting the decisions pertaining to the water in the Klamath Project.”
Lower-level decision-makers–in Devaney’s words, the people who would be “the most likely sources to provide evidence of such influence”–denied feeling pressure to decide one way or another, from Rove or anybody else. So did the higher-ups.
“While we confirmed a passing reference to the Klamath River Basin Project during an otherwise-unrelated presentation to senior Interior officials,” Devaney wrote, “we found nothing to tie Karl Rove’s comments or presentation to the Klamath decision-making process.”
“We conclude that the department conducted itself in keeping with the administrative process, that the science and information utilized supported the department’s decisions, and that no political pressure was perceived by any of the key participants.”
And that was that.
In contrast to his earlier accusations, Kerry has been a bit quieter about the results of the Devaney investigation. But even though Devaney found nothing, the senator says, it’s still something. “There are too many examples in this administration of politics trumping science, not to be concerned,” Kerry said in a statement after receiving Devaney’s letter.
In the end, “Klamath Salmon-Gate” amounted to nothing at all. Kerry’s accusations were flimsy, and the controversy was not a major campaign issue (except in those areas directly affected by the Klamath River decision).
But the episode says something about the dozens–no, hundreds–of accusations Democrats have leveled against the president. And what it says is: Be very skeptical.
Keep that in mind as the campaign goes on.
–Byron York is also a columnist for The Hill, where a version of this first appeared.