GOP news boss knew reporter had 2 names

No alarm over disclosure, Gopusa.com chief recalls

February 20, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

HOUSTON - The operator of an activist Republican Web site and news service said Friday that he had known for two years that his White House correspondent went by two identities.

But the operator, Robert R. Eberle, denied in an interview that the correspondent was an administration plant or was given preferential treatment as a Republican partisan to ask soft questions at briefings.

Breaking his silence on the events, which have been portrayed by Democrats as a Republican effort to manipulate news, Eberle said that "it took me by surprise" in early 2003 when the freelancer he had taken on as Jeff Gannon said he was gaining White House accreditation under his given name, James D. Guckert. "He said Gannon was his professional name; he didn't like the sound of his other name," Eberle recounted.

Eberle, 36, an aerospace engineer with a yen for conservative politics, said the disclosure raised no red flags about Guckert's journalistic credentials or professionalism.

Eberle said that in the two years that Guckert wrote for the Gopusa.com Web site and for the Talon News agency, he had not kept track of his reporter.

"Jeff did his thing; I did my thing," Eberle said. He also said that while he saw some of Guckert's writing samples before engaging him, "I don't know if I actually asked about his background and training."

Guckert resigned soon after a news conference when he asked Bush, "How are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?" referring to Senate Democrats.

Eberle said it was not his idea of a proper question. "I would have phrased it differently," he said. Still, he said, the backlash surprised him. "I had no reason to think he was not adhering to professional news standards."

The White House generally reserves slots for professional reporters, not political activists.

Eberle also said he had no inkling that Guckert had created pornographic Web sites or offered himself as a gay escort. Those revelations came in recent accounts in The Washington Post. If he had known, Eberle said, "I don't think I would have brought him on."

When asked about the revelations Friday night in a CNN interview, Guckert said: "How I'll address that is that I have made mistakes in my past. And these are all of a very personal and private nature that have been all brought to the surface by people who disagreed with the question I asked at the presidential press conference several weeks ago."

Eberle said he and some friends founded Gopusa.com in Houston about five years ago and later created Talon News. Eberle, who once worked for Lockheed Martin and says he prefers to keep his current employer unidentified, said he was not bankrolled by any backers.

Guckert offered himself as a writer in an e-mail message to Gopusa.com, Eberle said: "I believe he sent me some op-ed articles, and I reviewed those. I also tested him with some news stories."

Before engaging Guckert on "a volunteer basis," Eberle said he himself got temporary press credentials to attend a White House briefing. "I think I asked a question about a U.N. resolution on Iraq," Eberle said.

Guckert, having disclosed his real name, which he needed to use for even the cursory White House checks for a nonpermanent accreditation, then began attending briefings, Eberle said. "He would go as often as he could; he would try to go every day," he said.

Guckert did not travel with the president.

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