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"Crisis of Confidence" Hearing Highlights
by Dan Keppen, Family Farm Alliance Executive Director 8/3/07

With the new Congress having conducted over 600 oversight hearings so far, even dead fish are getting pulled into the political arena. On Tuesday, July 31, the House Natural Resources Committee (“Committee”) conducted an oversight hearing entitled "Crisis of Confidence:  The Political Influence of the Bush Administration on Agency Science and Decision-Making." 

The hearing was broadcast in its entirety over the Internet, but most of the urban media coverage so far appears to closely mirror the press statements issued by environmental organizations and their allies in Congress. A story which appeared in today’s edition of Indian Country Today, does the best job of reporting what actually happened at Tuesday’s hearing: http://www.indiancountry.com/content.cfm?id=1096415495. The headline of that story was “Science clears Cheney in Klamath salmon die-off”.


While the focus of the hearing was originally intended to address claims made by Democrats that Vice President Dick Cheney (allegedly) over-rode scientists to give Klamath Project (CALIFORNIA-OREGON) farmers water in 2002 - thereby (allegedly) killing over 30,000 fish in the lower Klamath River that fall – other topics of interest to Western water users were also discussed. These included (allegations of) political interference on California Bay-Delta water decisions, the Preble’s Meadow Jumping Mouse, and the role of peer-reviewed science in water resources decision-making.


Some fascinating questions and dialogue ensued over the course of the day-long hearing. Most of the press coverage contained quotes similar to this:

Today’s hearing is clear evidence that the scientific process behind the water diversion was purposely manipulated by government officials. Sidestepping this process led to an illegal water plan that contributed to the largest adult salmon kill in the West.

Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CALIFORNIA)

Other quotes that were significant but did not garner wide-spread media coverage include these zingers:

The formation of an NRC committee to examine the scientific and technical issues related to endangered fishes in the Klamath Basin was well justified and timely, with no detectable overtones of partisan political motivation…. Once formed through the NRC by NAS, committees are managed so that their findings cannot be manipulated politically, nor would committee members continue to serve in the face of manipulation.”

NRC Klamath Committee Chairman William Lewis

[W]e found no evidence of political influence affecting the decisions pertaining to the water in the Klamath Project… The consistent denial of political influence by government officials was corroborated by the view of the outside scientists and one former DOI official, all of whom denied feeling any pressure – political or otherwise.

Excerpt read by Rep. Greg Walden (R-OREGON), taken from a 2004 response letter from OIG to Senator John Kerry

"If the report says there is no evidence of political interference, doesn't that mean no evidence, whether it came from Karl Rove, the Vice President, the President, or the Pope?"

Rep. Wally Herger (R-CALIFORNIA), following up on Mr. Walden’s statement, above.

Alleged Political Interference at Interior

It appears that a recent, initial Interior Department Office of Inspector General (OIG) report supports allegations made by environmentalists regarding political interference exerted by Julie MacDonald, former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks. However, as noted by Rep McMorris (R-WASHINGTON) and Rep. Cannon (R-UTAH) at the July 31 hearing, both suggested that the entire story has not yet been heard on this matter. Here’s another quote that was not widely reported on:

(Julie MacDonald) has been unfairly called a future “convict” by a senior member of this Committee already, but there’s no basis for such irresponsible talk - especially when the Inspector General found that she did nothing illegal.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WASHINGTON), the Ranking Member of the House Water and Power Subcommittee

There are apparently unanswered questions regarding MacDonald’s ability to address the OIG charges, and how her input was factored into the OIG report.

The Vice President’s Role in Klamath Decision-Making

The hearing did nothing to strengthen the accusations and claims made by critics of the Bush Administration and its handling of Klamath matters. Those who claimed that Mr. Cheney somehow used his influence to roll the National Academy of Sciences and kill fish on the Klamath River in 2002, and the witnesses who testified towards this end, offered up no evidence linking the Vice President or any other high-level Bush Administration appointee to alleged political skullduggery on the Klamath. Consider the following:

1.         The witness who the anti-farming environmental groups have relied upon the most – “Whistleblower” Mike Kelly – admitted that he had no direct exposure to purported Vice-Presidential heavy-handed tactics in 2002;

2.         A high-ranking official in the Interior Department Inspector General’s office admitted that if Dick Cheney had used his influence to change Klamath water management, that likely would have been discovered in an earlier OIG report that found no such political influence exerted by anyone in the Bush Administration;

3.         The Chairman of the National Research Council (NRC) committee that provided recommendations on Klamath in no uncertain terms denied that his committee’s work was tampered with by politicians;

4.         This same witness re-stated the NRC committee’s finding that Klamath Project operations in 2002 had little - if any – effect on the die-off of salmon on the Klamath River.

To see for your self what Dr. William Lewis (Chairman of the NRC Committee on Endangered and Threatened Fishes in the Klamath River), submitted to the committee, check out the attached PDF version of his testimony.

Initial Mainstream Press Coverage

Environmental activists and their allies in Congress quickly found a way to put a positive spin on the mess that came out of the committee hearing on Tuesday. A press statement released after the hearing by Chairman Rahall suggests that further investigation into Mr. Cheney’s Klamath involvement is justified because the earlier IG report only focused on Karl Rove.

The mainstream media appeared ready to accept that explanation.

Cheney overlooked in Klamath inquiry” was the headline in the Associated Press article on the hearing, which opened its story with, “The Interior Department's inspector general did not find political interference by Vice President Dick Cheney on a key environmental policy in part because investigators were not looking for it, an Interior official said Tuesday.”

The Washington Post article on the hearing was short and buried within the inside pages.  The Post also appeared to accept Chairman Rahall’s explanation: The Interior Department Inspector General in 2004 did not find any evidence of Cheney's involvement because he was not looking for it and he was not looking for it because nobody gave him reason to believe that the Vice President was involved.   Had the IG known about or suspected Mr. Cheney’s involvement, he certainly would have looked into it.

What truly stands out and what is regrettable in the media coverage is the lack of attention paid to the very significant hearing developments noted above. This hearing was driven primarily by allegations made by the Washington Post, and the hard evidence presented on Tuesday that countered those claims was simply not reported in most media accounts.


Future hearings, if scheduled, could potentially invite calls for more oversight of Interior Department decision making on water issues in the Klamath Basin and elsewhere. It is unclear at this time whether further investigation of Mr. Cheney’s alleged involvement on Klamath matters will take place. However, given the nature of Chairman Rahall’s statement after the hearing, it is likely that the committee will ask the Inspector General to conduct another investigation.

Representative Edward J. Markey (D-MA), a senior Member of the House Natural Resources Committee, announced on Tuesday that he will introduce legislation to require increased transparency for decisions made by the Department of the Interior regarding endangered species.

Rep. Markey said, “As reports of political interference with scientific Endangered Species Act decisions within the Bush Administration continue to surface, increasing the transparency of the decision-making within the Interior Department will help ensure that politics do not trump science.”

The legislation will be formally introduced shortly.


The hearing utterly failed in fulfilling its original purported intent to provide more information on the Cheney-Klamath relationship. Virtually every argument made trying to link Bush Administration political interference to dead salmon on the Klamath River was shot out of the water. But still, critics of President Bush appear to be set on further pursuing these matters as part of a larger strategy to paint the Administration as a place where politics reign supreme, at the expense of the scientific process and the environment. Apparently, quotes in the Washington Post hold more sway with the House Natural Resources Committee leadership than unbiased investigations and National of Academy of Sciences studies that say otherwise.

And reporters with urban newspapers continue to report one side of the story – an inaccurate perspective that will, nevertheless, allow their headlines to comply with the old adage “If it bleeds, it leads”.

In many ways, the hearing turned out to be an alarming new attack on Western water users. Parts of the hearing and much of the news coverage that followed should sound alarm bells that need to be heard throughout the West. Make no mistake about it, this hearing made it clear that there are many interests in Washington and the national media that are dedicated to laying blame on Western farmers and water users, no matter what the facts say.

Meanwhile, Western farms and ranches are seeing their once secure water supplies under scrutiny from urban and environmental interests, Western forested watersheds are being “managed” into potential tinder boxes, and our country is becoming more reliant on unsafe and exposed imported food.

No worries – we’ll just wait for Congress to tackle those issues after they have conducted a few more constructive, politically-driven oversight hearings.

Dan Keppen, Family Farm Alliance Executive Director

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