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Mar 12
 

IG: Bush political aide Rove didn't influence Klamath policy


WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Interior Department's inspector general has found no basis for a claim by Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry that White House political advisers interfered in developing water policy in the Northwest.

Specifically, the inspector general said President Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, was not involved in a 2002 decision to divert water from the Klamath River in Oregon to irrigate farms.

While Rove mentioned the Klamath in passing during a briefing with senior Interior officials, "we found nothing to tie Karl Rove's comments ... to the Klamath decision-making process," Inspector General Earl Devaney said in a March 1 letter to Kerry.

A major fish kill and other problems in the drought-plagued region have "fueled the flames of suspicion and distrust," Devaney wrote in the letter, which was released Friday by the Interior Department.

"However, we conclude that the (Interior) 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," the letter said.

The White House called the report a vindication of its approach to water management in the Klamath, a contentious issue that has spurred litigation and hard feelings among farmers, environmentalists, commercial fishermen, Indian tribes and others.

"While there is always going to be political sniping in this world, it doesn't change the fact that the Department of Interior bases its decisions on the best available science and will continue to do so," White House spokesman Ken Lisaius said Friday.

In a statement from his Senate office, Kerry said he accepts the inspector general's findings but still questions why a political operative was briefing senior Interior officials about complex resource issues.

"There are too many examples in this administration of politics trumping science not to be concerned," the statement said.

Kerry sought the inquiry last year, following a report in the Wall Street Journal that Rove had briefed top managers at the Interior Department in January 2002 about the Klamath and other Western issues.

Rove's briefing followed a trip by President Bush and Rove to Oregon, where Republican leaders had stressed the need to support their agricultural base by increasing water flow to nearby farms. Rove's briefing signaled that the White House shared that desire, the newspaper reported.

Three months after the meeting, administration officials increased the water supply to more than 200,000 acres of farmland in California and Oregon - a decision that was bitterly opposed by environmentalists, commercial fishermen and others.

In September 2002, nearly 33,000 chinook salmon died in the Klamath River in northern California. The California Department of Fish and Game laid much of the blame on low water flows controlled by the federal government, saying it created conditions that allowed a fatal gill-rot disease to spread through the fish.

A report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said low river flows played a role, but said other factors, including a large return of fish, also contributed to the fish kill, the worst in decades.

Susan Holmes, a spokeswoman for Earthjustice, an environmental group that advised Kerry on the Klamath inquiry, said it was "unimaginable" that politics did not play a role in the decisions surrounding the Klamath Basin.

"There are three Bush administration whistle-blowers and 33,000 dead fish that speak for themselves," Holmes said.

But Dan Keppen, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, said the report "really reaffirms that this is a matter of biological science, not political science."

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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