"Jeff Gannon's" incredible access

There's evidence he got into White House briefings before he was a "reporter."

By Eric Boehlert

Published February 17, 2005 2:54PM (EST)

James Guckert's mysterious career as a White House correspondent for Talon News just took another strange twist. And once again, the newest revelation raises the central question: Who broke the rules on Guckert's behalf to give him access to the White House? Despite administration claims that Guckert simply followed established protocol in order to routinely slip inside the White House briefing room, it now appears clear that Guckert, who just months before his 2003 debut as a cub reporter was offering himself up online as a $200 an hour male escort, benefited from extraordinarily preferential treatment, likely granted by someone inside the White House press office.

Thanks to the continued digging by online sleuths, there's now documented evidence that Guckert attended White House briefings as early as February 2003. Guckert, using his alias "Jeff Gannon," once boasted online about asking then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer a question at the Feb. 28, 2003, briefing. The date is significant because in order to receive a White House press pass, Guckert would have needed to prove that he worked for a news organization that, in the words of White House press secretary Scott McClellan, "published regularly," in itself an extraordinarily low threshold. Critics have charged that while Talon News may publish regularly, it boasts a nearly all-volunteer news team that includes not a single person with actual journalism experience. (The team does, though, have quite a bit of experience working on Republican campaigns.) In other words, the outfit is not legitimate or independent, two criteria often used in Washington to receive press credentials.

But what's significant about the February 2003 date is that Talon did not even exist then. The organization was created in late March 2003, and began publishing online in early April 2003. Gannon, a jack of all trades who spent time in the military as well as working at an auto repair shop (not to mention escorting), has already stated publicly that Talon News was his first job in journalism. That means he wasn't working for any other news outlet in February 2003 when he was spotted by C-Span cameras inside the White House briefing room. And that means Guckert was ushered into the White House press room in February 2003 for a briefing despite the fact he was not a journalist.

Whereas it was once suspected that White House press officials in charge of doling out coveted press passes went easy on Guckert, a Republican partisan working for an amateurish news outlet who would routinely ask softball questions, it now appears those same unnamed White House officials simply ignored all established credential standards -- including detailed security guidelines -- and gave Guckert White House access, even though he had no professional standing whatsoever.

For more than a week White House officials have refused to answer any of Salon's questions regarding the credential process used for Guckert's press passes.

Democrats on the Hill are also looking for answers. Last week, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., requested from McClellan all documents related to Guckert's press passes. On Wednesday, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., and Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., filed a Freedom of Information request with the Department of Homeland Security, in search of all information related to Guckert's credentials and security clearance to cover the White House. On Wednesday Slaughter noted, "With each new revelation it becomes more and more clear that the relationship between the White House and Jeff Gannon was anything but typical. It is time for this administration to stop the stonewalling and come clean with the American people."

President Bush called on Guckert during a Jan. 26 press conference. "It is a huge deal for Bush to pick on you at a press conference," says a member of the White House press corps. "There are people in the press room who have covered Bush for four years and haven't had a chance to ask him a question." Ironically, it was Guckert's time in the spotlight on Jan. 26 that triggered his downfall. After asking a loaded, partisan question, in which Guckert mocked Democratic leaders for being "divorced from reality," liberal critics online began digging into his qualifications, Talon's partisan ties, and eventually into Guckert's unusual past. Guckert resigned as Talon White House correspondent on Feb. 9.

The question about credentials remains key. The vast majority of reporters covering the White House have what's called a "hard," or permanent, pass. To obtain one they have to verify they work for a recognized news organization with job responsibilities covering the White House. They have to submit to a lengthy security background check conducted by the FBI, which can take months to complete and requires being photographed and fingerprinted. Journalists also must verify to the White House they already have credentials to cover Capitol Hill. Without them, the White House won't complete a hard pass request.

In late 2003 Guckert applied for a Capitol Hill pass and was denied because Talon, which enjoys close ties to GOPUSA.com, was not deemed to be a legitimate, independent news outlet. That in and of itself should have been a red flag for the White House press office. Yet for nearly two years, it allowed Guckert to circumvent the hard pass system by using a day pass whenever he needed White House access. The day pass requires just a minimal background check. It was designed to be used on a temporary basis, such as for reporters coming in from out of town to cover the White House for a brief period. Guckert, though, with the help of somebody inside the press office, turned the day pass system into his own revolving door. That was when he was at least working for Talon News.

To learn Guckert was waved into the White House for fourth estate briefings even before he was affiliated with any kind of news outlet is startling.

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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