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Election: House Republicans pressed Pentagon for e-mail addresses of sailors

July 15, 2001

The day before Thanksgiving, the Pentagon received an urgent request from a Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Steve Buyer of Indiana. Buyer had sent a letter to each of the armed services asking for phone numbers or e-mail addresses of a number of service men and women.

The information was needed by 5 p.m.

Military officers met that deadline, thinking they were answering a routine, if frantic, congressional request, senior officers who were involved in the effort say.

The request was anything but routine.

The list Buyer requested included Florida voters whose absentee ballots had been disqualified in the wrangling over the presidential race the previous weekend.

The information was used to put sailors in contact with Florida Republicans who were organizing a public relations campaign to persuade counties to reconsider rejected ballots, according to e-mail messages obtained by The New York Times and interviews with four sailors.

It is a cornerstone of American military tradition that the armed services remain apolitical. Military regulations prohibit service members from participating in political activities. Similarly, House ethics rules and federal law forbid congressional officials to perform political work with government resources or on government time.

Buyer's request was part of a broad effort by the Bush campaign to turn public opinion against Al Gore over the hundreds of military absentee ballots that had been rejected because of missing or late postmarks or other defects. Working first with Republican volunteers, Rob Carter, the finance director of the Florida Republican Party, found military voters whose ballots had been rejected and helped circulate their accounts to the news media.

But over Thanksgiving, Carter also had the help of Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee. After the Pentagon responded to Buyer with contact information for 17 sailors, the committee sent e-mail messages to their ships alerting them that their ballots had been disqualified.

Combined, the broad effort by the Bush campaign and the congressional outreach helped create a public relations firestorm for the Gore campaign, which eventually led some local officials to reconsider the previous rejections.

In a recent interview, Buyer, who at the time was chairman of the personnel subcommittee, described his outreach as appropriate. He said he was furious that Gore campaign lawyers had urged county canvassing boards to reject absentee ballots without postmarks, despite the fact that Florida law required them and that the Florida secretary of state, Katherine Harris, had reiterated the requirement. He wrote to the services, he said, to help him understand how severely military voters had been affected.

"When you're in the epicenter of something, you're trying to define it," Buyer said. "That's the intent of this letter." Buyer then ended the interview and has declined requests for interviews since.

The committee staff has refused requests by The Times to release many documents related to its outreach efforts. Democrats on the committee say that they too have not been given documents related to Buyer's effort, and complain that they were not told about it as it occurred.

"On the surface, it looks as if this was a wholesale misuse of the subcommittee and its resources," said Rep. Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii, the subcommittee's ranking Democrat.

Michael Higgins, the subcommittee employee who contacted sailors on Buyer's behalf, declined requests for an interview.

Ryan Vaart, the committee spokesman, said that Higgins only surveyed military members about their voting experiences. The sole purpose of the outreach, Vaart said, was to help Congress prepare bills to change voting law.

A copy of two of the e-mail messages shows that Higgins did more than that.

The first message, which The Times obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, was sent at 9:29 p.m. on Nov. 22 from Washington to senior officers on the George Washington in the Mediterranean.

In it, Higgins noted that he was working with "HQ Navy" and asked the ship's brass to track down 17 sailors he believed were with the carrier and have them contact him. He sent a copy to Carter, which provided the Republican campaign direct access to deployed sailors whose addresses the Navy normally considers private. It also gave the party access to the private dialogue between the congressional staff and the ship.

In another message, sent on Nov. 24 to a sailor who had answered his first request, Higgins recommended Carter as a source for more information about ballot rejections.

At the time of this exchange, Carter was leading an aggressive effort to persuade canvassing boards to reconsider the ballots. Using a list of service members he had made from rejected ballot envelopes in Duval County, he had already contacted enough sailors to provide anecdotes of angry military voters to Rep. Tillie K. Fowler, a Republican, who released them at a news conference at a memorial to the county's war dead.

Carter also tracked down the wife of a Navy pilot and helped arrange a press conference. This led to an interview with Katie Couric on the NBC program "Today" in which the wife, Abigail Krug, protested the disqualification of her husband's ballot.

"There was a PR element to what we were doing," Carter said.

His efforts were effective. By Nov. 25 Carter had sent e-mail to roughly two dozen sailors notifying them that three Florida canvassing boards, in Duval, Nassau and Clay Counties, had reversed themselves and counted their votes, sailors who received the message said. "Great news," Carter wrote. "Despite continued aggressive arguments by the Democrat attorneys, the individual boards, realizing the importance of not disenfranchising military personnel, reversed their opinion of a week ago."

Before being confronted with the e-mail messages, both the committee and Carter insisted they had acted independently.

Later, when Carter, who is now an employee of Hohlt & Associates, a Washington government relations firm, was told about the e-mail traffic from Higgins, he said he could not remember precisely with whom he had communicated. "I've just got no recollection," he said.

By C.J. CHIVERS, New York Times News Service, Copyright © 2001 Naples Daily News.


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