unbearable lightness of Kerry’s allegations
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
The decision involved a long-standing dispute
between farmers and environmentalists in
Oregon’s Klamath River Basin.
The farmers wanted water to be diverted from
the river to help save crops from drought,
while the environmentalists opposed the
diversion because it would kill thousands of
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
And that’s where 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.
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
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
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
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
“I anxiously await their decision,” Kerry said
Sept. 5, 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.
Devaney 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
“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.