Who’s Behind the Right’s Base Closure Smear?

Jamison Foser

By Jamison Foser

The right-wing media are accusing the Obama administration of playing politics with national security. But by using a trumped-up allegation peddled by a discredited former McCain aide to smear the White House, Obama’s critics are guilty of the politicization of the military they claim to denounce.

The conservatives allege that, in order to secure Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson’s support for health care reform, the White House has threatened to close an Air Force base in Nebraska unless he falls in line. The allegation is impossible to believe, though right-wing media figures have — with varying degrees of success — pretended to do so.

Why is it impossible to believe?

Well, first, it comes from deeply dishonest conservative bloggers like Michael Goldfarb, the McCain campaign operative whose previous claim to fame was one of the most ludicrous television appearances ever by a campaign spokesperson.

Second, the sourcing is beyond sketchy — anonymous and vaguely-described and impossible to either confirm or disprove.

Third, the target of the alleged threat: To the extent the White House has taken an aggressive stance toward Democratic members of Congress, conservatives like Nelson have not been known to be the recipients of pressure.

Fourth, Nelson’s office — the alleged target of the threat — has firmly denied the allegation, as has the White House.

And finally: If the White House wanted to put pressure on Nelson, threatening to, as Goldfarb put it, "put Nebraska’s Offutt Air Force Base on the BRAC list" is just about the least effective way they could do so. See, BRAC — the Base Realignment and Closure process — just doesn’t work that way. BRAC makes it extremely difficult for political considerations to influence base closure decisions. As the conservative Heritage Foundation notes, "Realignment and closure decisions are not made arbitrarily. The Pentagon, Congress, and the BRAC commission adhere to a predetermined set of criteria to guide them through the process." An independent commission makes closure recommendations, which Congress has an opportunity to reject. The process is lengthy, high-profile, and defined by built-in mechanisms that prevent just the kind of meddling the conservatives are alleging. And BRAC won’t even make closure decisions for several more years.

So the alleged threat would take a long time to execute, would have a low probability of success, and, if found out, would make the White House look far worse than would much easier and immediate forms of pressure. It would be about as effective as threatening to put a hex on Nelson’s dog. It just isn’t plausible.

And yet 20 Republican senators are now calling for an investigation into this obviously bogus charge (though one of them, Nelson’s fellow Nebraskan Mike Johanns, reportedly admits he doesn’t believe the allegation.) So how did we get here?

Tuesday morning, conservative writer Matt Lewis wrote on his Twitter feed, "Hearing Ben Nelson has been threatened with closing his air force base" over Nelson’s slowness to embrace health care reform. Lewis provided no details, and that’s the last he wrote about the subject. Odd — if Lewis really believed there was anything to this story, you’d think he’d want to take credit for breaking it (something he is not generally bashful about doing).

Three hours later, RedState blogger Dan Perrin claimed:

The White House and Democratic Leadership in the Senate has told Senator Nelson they will close every military base in Nebraska — a threat that is not credible, really — but they have also offered Senator Nelson between $300 million to $500 million in earmarks, according to key hill health care operatives.

And that’s the last Perrin wrote about this allegation — perhaps because he acknowledged the threat is "not credible."

Which brings us to Michael Goldfarb, Weekly Standard blogger and former McCain operative. Two hours after Perrin acknowledged the lack of credibility of the alleged threat, Goldfarb began pushing it:

According to a Senate aide, the White House is now threatening to put Nebraska’s Offutt Air Force Base on the BRAC list if Nelson doesn’t fall into line.

Notice that Goldfarb attributed the claim to "a Senate aide," without providing the most basic possible information: Which political party does the aide belong to? Given that the allegation would appear more credible coming from a Democratic aide, we can assume from Goldfarb’s wording that his source was a GOP staffer. How is this presumably Republican staffer in a position to know about a threat the Democratic White House made to a Democratic senator? Goldfarb doesn’t provide any indication.

Now take a look at the "quotes" from Goldfarb’s "source":

As our source put it, this is a "naked effort by Rahm Emanuel and the White House to extort Nelson’s vote." They are "threatening to close a base vital to national security for what?" asked the Senate staffer.

Sure sounds like a Republican, doesn’t it? By refusing to reveal the staffer’s political orientation, Goldfarb was intentionally obscuring information that would make the report less credible. That’s a pretty dishonest maneuver that itself undermines his claims.

Goldfarb closed by being the first to invoke the specter of "this administration playing politics with our national security":

STRATCOM [United States Strategic Command] was located in the middle of the country for strategic reasons. Its closure would be a massive blow to the economy of the state of Nebraska, but it would also be another example of this administration playing politics with our national security.

Of course, the first part of that excerpt is exactly why such a threat is so unlikely. As for the second part: Making obviously false allegations against the White House in order to portray them as "playing politics with our national security" is, itself, "playing politics with our national security."

Yesterday, even as I was explaining the glaring flaws in Goldfarb’s claim on Media Matters‘ County Fair blog, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and several conservative bloggers began pushing it. Beck suggested the White House’s alleged threat constitutes "high crimes." Hannity read Goldfarb’s blog post nearly word-for-word, echoing the "playing politics" line. Limbaugh pushed the allegation, too, but accidentally undermined it by saying "the next convening of a base closing commission is 2013." Really? We’re supposed to believe the White House is threatening Nelson with something that wouldn’t happen for four years — at a time when Barack Obama may not even be in office any more?

And Goldfarb wasn’t done yet. He appeared on Beck’s radio show to announce: "As I understand it, Rahm Emanuel delivered a message to the Senate leadership that if Nelson did not get behind this, Offutt Air Force base would find itself on the next round of BRAC closures."

But by the time Goldfarb went on Beck’s television show later in the day, he was busy retracting the claim that Emanuel was involved. Then Goldfarb acknowledged that "it’s actually not a very credible threat" to shut down the base, given that the BRAC process won’t start again for several years:

GOLDFARB: Look, and as my source told me — he said, "Look, this was clearly done by somebody who didn’t understand the BRAC process." It’s actually not a very credible threat. The BRAC process won’t begin again until 2012, 2013, but clearly they wanted to exert some pressure. … [T]he sort of the funny thing here is this is not a very credible threat they’ve made to Nelson.

Well, that’s pretty hard to believe. See, Goldfarb earlier claimed his source told him the threat came from Rahm Emanuel, who — having served as a senior staffer in a previous presidential administration and as a member of the leadership in the House of Representatives, in addition to currently being White House chief of staff — clearly does understand the BRAC process. Now Goldfarb claims his source told him it was done by someone who doesn’t understand BRAC.

And if Goldfarb’s source really did tell him the threat was made by someone who doesn’t understand BRAC, and if Goldfarb really did understand it wasn’t a "credible threat," why did he leave that information out of his blog post? The simplest explanation is that Goldfarb (and his source, if his source even exists) made all of this up, not having the first clue about the BRAC process. And once the absurdity of the claim was pointed out, he tried to save face by changing his account of what his "source" told him.

That would be consistent with Goldfarb’s history of trying to paper over his obvious whoppers, by the way. Here’s Goldfarb vouching for his credibility last night:

BECK: People will say you’re a political hack. Why should we believe a guy who was a communications director for the McCain campaign?

GOLDFARB: Oh, I got a perfect track record. You know, I’ve never made up a story before. I hope that’ll be enough.

But that’s not true. Not even close.

During Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings, Goldfarb claimed that when she was a student at Princeton, Sotomayor was allowed to teach her own class and grade her own work:

GOLDFARB: I went to Princeton but somehow I never got to teach my own class, or grade my own work. One wonders how Sotomayor judged her work in that class, and whether the grade helped or hindered her efforts to graduate with honors.

Goldfarb was referring to a 1974 Princeton press release about a seminar Sotomayor and two other students initiated.

But the press release didn’t say Sotomayor taught the class — to the contrary, it specifically said "[t]he seminar is being taught by Dr. Peter E. Winn, Assistant Professor of History and a specialist in Latin American affairs." And it didn’t say Sotomayor got to grade her own work. The seminar also made clear that there was nothing unique about it; it had been "offered twice before." According to the release, Sotomayor and the other students "did what scores of other Princeton Students have been able to do for the past six years: they initiated their own seminar."

Goldfarb, in other words, made up the claim that Sotomayor taught her own class. He made up the claim that she graded her own work. He made up the claim that this was the result of preferential treatment.

And when I caught him doing so, and several others ridiculed Goldfarb for his obvious falsehood, did he retract his bogus claims? No. Instead, a few days later, Goldfarb added an update to his post — an update that didn’t retract the falsehoods but instead quoted a National Review writer implying, as Goldfarb claimed, that Sotomayor graded herself. The update — much like Goldfarb’s current attempts to make it look like he knew all along that the BRAC threat is implausible — was a transparent effort to paper over his mistake rather than admit to it.

Then, two weeks later, he completely rewrote history, pretending that his claims about Sotomayor had been accurate and that "the left was outraged that anyone would suggest Sotomayor had benefited from affirmative action." That isn’t what happened. What happened was that Goldfarb lied, was caught doing so, and refused to admit to having made false claims.

That’s Michael Goldfarb’s "perfect track record." That’s the person responsible for the not-remotely-credible (and ever-shifting) claims about Rahm Emanuel and the White House threatening Ben Nelson. And that’s the basis on which Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and 20 Republican senators are throwing around phrases like "high crimes" and calling for investigations: the ludicrous and contradictory claims of a deeply dishonest former McCain operative.

Jamison Foser is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog and research and information center based in Washington, D.C. Foser also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web, as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook or sign up to receive his columns by email