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Envoys' political briefings debated

Republican Sen. Lugar questions White House aides' private talks with U.S. ambassadors.

July 25, 2007|From the Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Political briefings given by White House aides to high-ranking U.S. diplomats "were probably inappropriate" and should stop, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said Tuesday.

The comments by Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana were in contrast to White House assertions that the private briefings were not unusual or improper.

Starting in 2001, White House political aides gave at least half a dozen briefings to top diplomats about key congressional and gubernatorial races and President Bush's reelection goals, according to documents obtained by the Senate committee.

In a January 2007 session, Karl Rove, a senior advisor to Bush, briefed six ambassadors about Democratic incumbents targeted for defeat in 2008. Another political briefing occurred at the Peace Corps headquarters after the 2002 election, the documents said.

The diplomats were Bush appointees, several of whom had contributed heavily to the campaigns of Bush and other Republicans. Administration officials said Tuesday that there was nothing surprising or inappropriate about the briefings.

"You've got political appointees getting political briefings," White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said with sarcasm. "I'm shocked. Shocked."

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the briefings did not violate the federal Hatch Act nor the department's "very strict guidelines" that bar partisan political activity by diplomats. The Hatch Act protects federal employees from involvement in partisan politics and bars the use of most federal facilities for partisan purposes.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: "I do not understand why ambassadors, in Washington on official duty, would be briefed by White House officials on which Democratic House members are considered top targets by the GOP for defeat in 2008. Nor do I understand why department employees would need to be briefed on 'key media markets' in states that are 'competitive' for the president."

Biden, who suggested the Hatch Act may have been violated, asked Rice for more details about the political briefings.

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