Long before "Jeff Gannon" became a household pseudonym in the nation's capital, he had earned considerable recognition among the political elites of South Dakota. During that state's closely contested Senate race last year, the Talon News writer -- whose real name is now known to be James Dale Guckert -- dug his claws deep into Tom Daschle, the former Senate minority leader narrowly defeated by Republican John Thune.
In 2004 Republican leaders placed no higher price on any head, besides John Kerry's, than on the Senate Democratic leader's. For years, conservative organizations had attacked Daschle with campaigns that included notorious ads that paired the Army veteran with Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. The smear efforts damaged Daschle's standing with the state's voters, and as the election grew nearer, Republican blogs and Web sites took up the dirty work. In what has now been exposed as a blatant Republican strategy, the seemingly independent bloggers had in fact been paid by the Thune campaign.
Gannon took up the Republicans' dirty work with great gusto, beginning more than a year before the election, in the summer of 2003. Working with two local South Dakota bloggers, both of whom later turned out to be secretly paid operatives of the Thune campaign, he targeted Daschle and discredited mainstream journalists. Among Gannon's direct hits was an embarrassing story that revealed that the three-term senator and his lobbyist wife, Linda, had applied for a "homestead exemption" on their costly Washington, D.C., residence, claiming it as their primary residence.
Gannon went much further, however, in accusing reporters at the state's most important newspaper, the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader, of shilling for Daschle and, worse still, of colluding with the senator in the intimidation of his political adversaries. Such wild attacks were then played back on the Thune-financed Web logs, which attracted substantial attention in the Senate race and influenced coverage in the South Dakota media. As the National Journal explained in a post-election analysis, the blog assault "opened a new and potentially powerful front in the war over public opinion." The National Journal and local journalists agreed that the blog campaign against Daschle was "crucial." A top Argus Leader editor conceded, "I don't think there's any way to say [the blogs] didn't" affect the paper's coverage.
Daschle's defeat is old news by now, of course. Yet to understand who "Gannon" really was -- and why he obtained such special treatment from Karl Rove's White House communications operation -- one useful exercise may be what intelligence analysts call "walking back the cat." In essence, this means running the movie in reverse slow-motion to see where the suspect came from and what he did along the way.
Looking back at the special role played by Talon and Gannon in the South Dakota Senate campaign may provide clues in the mystery of the male-escort-cum-journalist's extraordinary access to the Bush White House.
The cooperation between the Talon News writer and Daschle's Republican challenger dates back to the early weeks of the South Dakota campaign, when Thune showed up as a guest on "Jeff Gannon's Washington," the writer's Internet radio program on Rightalk.com. It might have seemed unusual for a Midwestern Senate candidate to show up on an Internet radio show in Washington, where he would reach almost no listeners in his home state. But Gannon didn't waste Thune's time. His friendly questioning allowed the Republican candidate to lay out the themes of his campaign to unseat the incumbent: Daschle was an obstructionist opponent of the president, out of touch with the home folks, and married to a rich pharmaceutical lobbyist.
On Feb. 8, 2004, Gannon's interview with Thune was the subject of an article in the Argus-Leader, and immediately got picked up by "DaschlevThune," a Web blog operated by history professor and Republican activist Jon Lauck, and South Dakota Politics.com, run by a lawyer named Jason Van Beek. Lauck promoted a series of Talon News articles by Gannon, which charged that Dave Kranz, the Argus-Leader's chief political correspondent, and a three-decade veteran reporter, was in essence nothing more than a hit man for Daschle.
While promoting Talon and Gannon as credible journalistic sources, Lauck's blog reprinted sensational paragraphs posted by Gannon on the Talon News Web site, urging readers to take special note of the Talon reporter's "quite interesting article" about Daschle's "Sopranos-style" tactics. The story contained no actual evidence of misconduct by either the Democratic senator or the Sioux Falls newspaperman, beyond anonymous quotes that accused them of Mafia-like intimidation of "small business owners" and other beleaguered anti-Daschle dissidents. (The "Sopranos" story, like all of Gannon's other works, has been scrubbed by Talon's Republican owners from their Web site.)
The bloggers promoted dozens of Talon News attacks on Daschle, under the false flag of journalistic independence. They proclaimed themselves the paladins of truth, battling against South Dakota's "liberal media." Nobody in South Dakota would know until months after Nov. 2, when Daschle was so narrowly defeated, that those "independent" bloggers dogging him had been subsidized by the Thune campaign. But there, on the final post-election filings, were the names Lauck and Van Beek, who had been paid $27,000 and $8,000, respectively.
And nobody in South Dakota could know, until now, the true identity and purpose of "Jeff Gannon" and his employers at Talon News.