Defense Department spokesman Kenneth Bacon has attacked the messenger —
WorldNetDaily — in an attempt to undermine the newssite’s story that many
U.S. servicemen and women stationed overseas did not receive absentee
ballots in time to vote.
The issue of absentee ballots is nowhere more important than in the state of
Florida, which is undergoing a mandatory vote recount after Texas Gov.
George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore came to within several hundred
votes of each other following yesterday’s election.
Though final vote tallies had Bush slightly ahead, because it was a margin
less than 0.5 percent Florida law requires a mandatory recount.
At issue is the number of overseas absentee ballots still waiting to be
counted. Most of those, all major news networks reported yesterday, are from
overseas military personnel. Also, the networks agreed that traditionally
most military service personnel vote Republican — an advantage for Bush and
a potential coup de grace to Gore’s chances of winning.
In fact, a story on yesterday’s
Military.com noted that “an unscientific poll conducted on the American Legion’s website, which was promoted on U.S. bases abroad, showed Bush ahead by a ratio of nine to one.” It also quoted Philip Pollock, professor of political science at the University of Central Florida, as saying that in 1996, roughly 2,300 service members submitted absentee ballots in Florida.
In a press briefing Tuesday, Bacon referred to Saturday’s WND story,
Military missing absentee ballots, as “ludicrous.”
A reporter started the exchange:
Q: The premise of this Internet story is basically that there is some plot to suppress the military vote, which they assume will be Republican. Now what would you say to such a …
Bacon: Well, I have no idea what the military vote will be, but the premise of that story is ludicrous.
In response to a question about a postal snafu that led to delays in delivery of ballots, Bacon said he had no knowledge of the problem, adding that it is up to individual servicemen and women to secure their own ballots.
During Bacon’s briefing, a reporter, citing the WorldNetDaily report, explained that mail delivery had been held up for entire foreign units and asked Bacon to address the report.
Bacon attempted to shift blame away from the Pentagon and instead put the onus on servicemen themselves, though he acknowledged that the service branches — at one point — do handle mail for service members.
“If you — yes, that is precisely right, just as if you sent a letter to a person aboard ship, or when you were on ship once, and if your mother sent you a letter, or a girlfriend, it would be at some point collected by the Navy and delivered to the ship,” he said.
“But it was up to the mailer of the letter or the mailer of an absentee ballot to get it in the mail at the right time, and get it to the right address, where it would then be picked up — an APO box or FPO box — and delivered to the ship,” Bacon continued. “Now if people requested the ballots too late, it could have been a difficulty, or if there was a hiccup in the mail, just as if there — if you were trying to vote absentee in the United States because you planned to be traveling, and there was a hiccup in the mail, you might not get your ballot on time.”
One reporter, in an attempt to find out what information Bacon was using to refute WorldNetDaily’s story, asked, “How would you know whether people are having problems [getting their ballots] or not? How do you know that?”
Bacon: “Well, apparently somebody talked to this Internet service. But I assume they could go to an official on the ship or at the base and say, ‘I haven’t got my ballot.'”
Q: “But how would you know back here? In other words, on what basis are you answering our questions today?”
Bacon: “Well, I’m answering your questions completely on the basis of procedure; what the procedures are — ”
Q: “Right, so you don’t know. There could be — ”
Bacon: – “and I think – I think – let me just point out; the most important thing for everybody to realize is that the Pentagon encourages people to vote, but it – and it tells them how to vote; that is, it tells them the procedures to follow, and the procedures generally involve requesting an absentee ballot from a local authority well enough ahead of time so that the person can get the ballot returned by election day. That’s the primary role we play.”
The Pentagon has also said that about 130,000 service personnel in 1996 — because of a failure of ballot delivery or request by the member — did not get absentee ballots and could not vote.
Navy Lt. Dave Gai, the Pentagon spokesman who initially spoke to WorldNetDaily about the story, admitted hearing reports “about this [absentee ballot non-deliveries] within the past week,” but said that the Defense Department was “trying to get more information.”
The day after the story broke, however, an agitated Gai contacted WND to complain, saying the report was “biased” and incorrect — though he failed to cite any factual error, other than that he had been incorrectly referred to as an Army spokesman instead of a Defense Department spokesman.
Also Tuesday, United Press International reported that WorldNetDaily said “the crew of the stricken USS Cole has been unable to vote.”
In fact, WND had quoted Gai: “‘The support team for the USS Cole may not get their ballots due to intermittent mail,’ Gai said. ‘Some ballots could very well be delayed for a number of reasons.'”
On Wednesday, Gai again criticized the overall flavor of the initial WND report, calling it “biased” and “unprofessional.”
“In general, personally, [the story] caused some heartache, but also professionally the credibility on articles on the Net are questioned anyway,” he said. “When something this biased … hits the Net, it creates havoc with correspondents here.”
However, when asked directly whether all U.S. military personnel that requested absentee ballots in fact got them, Gai said he couldn’t “verify on an individual basis” and that he was “not aware of any large-scale problems.”
“The personnel [themselves] need to notify their commanding officers that they didn’t get the ballots and request Special Form 186,” he said.
Gai reiterated that sometimes — especially with sailors and officers stationed aboard U.S. Navy ships on assignment overseas — “mail is intermittent” and that there was “no way to control when it arrives [or] when it goes out.”
He also said in the case of the USS Cole that he initially told WND the on-board support team “may not get” ballots in time, not that they wouldn’t get them.
Bottom line, he said, was that military personnel themselves “are responsible for requesting absentee ballots. It’s not the military’s responsibility. The Pentagon doesn’t send out ballots.”
WorldNetDaily was initially contacted by U.S. residents and service members who said that, in contrast to prior election years, they had not yet received their absentee ballots — but that they had requested them in the correct way.
Since the report broke, numerous other service members have also contacted the newssite, complaining that they too had not yet received ballots, even though they requested them.
A Florida Navy wife whose husband is stationed in Kuwait, writing the newssite today, was typical:
“My husband is a registered Republican here in Florida and was quite bothered that the results are so close and that he had no opportunity to vote. He said many of the troops where he’s at were also unable to vote (most of them in favor of Bush).”
Bacon told reporters yesterday that the seven-ship battle group that the USS Cole belonged to had received 2,100 standard Form 186 write-in ballots for the purposes of voting. He also said that not all personnel needed them because some had likely already voted via absentee ballots obtained from their home districts.
The Pentagon spokesman was also vague in responding to a reporter’s question about the number of ballot complaints received by the Federal Voting Assistance Program — the office that handles voting for military personnel stationed overseas:
Q: Are you aware that the Federal Voting Assistance Program has received any complaints from service members who, for one reason or another, were unable to cast an absentee ballot?
Bacon: I’m not aware that they have received an unusual number of complaints.
Q: Well, what’s the usual number?
Bacon: I don’t know. I don’t know about complaints. I mean, they may have received complaints, but what I’m trying to explain is, if a – we know that 2,000 …
Q: We’re just trying to get the fact on how many complaints –
Bacon: I don’t know that. We’ll try to find out how many complaints.
The Federal Voting Assistance Program is managed by the Pentagon. Gai said Monday that the program “was not aware of any group non-delivery.”
At one point during the press conference, Bacon emphatically denied that the Pentagon shared any culpability at all for “absent” absentee ballots:
Q: Just to be absolutely clear, are you saying that if a member of the military that was deployed overseas had a problem voting, it wasn’t your fault?
Bacon: I’m saying it is not the Pentagon’s fault. But everybody in the Department of Defense encourages – encourages – voting. And we have worked very hard to encourage voting, and we’re sorry if there were some glitches that may have prevented people from voting on time.
However, at no point during the press conference did Bacon deny that some members of the military had not received ballots in time.
Other press reports suggested that WorldNetDaily’s initial story was a thinly-veiled attempt to advance a conspiracy theory that because of an expectedly high pro-GOP military vote, the administration had purposely delayed delivery of the absentee ballots to give Gore an advantage.
However, at no point in WND’s story was a conspiracy discussed, nor was that question put to Lt. Gai or other service personnel who contacted the newssite to report the discrepancy. The story contained one sentence expressing the sentiments of some administration critics who “have suggested that the Clinton administration may have purposely delayed sending absentee ballots to military personnel overseas because most, according to recent surveys, will vote Republican.”
Bacon also attempted to undermine the story by casting aspersions on WorldNetDaily.
“I’d like to point out that that news service is the same news service that’s been spreading an absolutely false story about President Clinton going to Vietnam on a Navy ship, which he’s not planning to do,” Bacon said. “So I think you have to be careful about some of these news stories.”
After WND published
an Aug. 23 story reporting that according to high-level U.S. Navy sources President Clinton was planning a trip to Vietnam before the end of his term, and that he was conspiring to lower a Navy flag below the level of Vietnam’s flag upon entering the communist nation’s territorial waters, a major uproar ensued.
Naval and congressional media representatives specifically denied that there would be a Vietnam trip. Three weeks later, USA Today and Associated Press confirmed that the Vietnam trip would indeed take place — after the election and before Clinton leaves office.
Although the main source in the first article said Clinton would make the trip aboard a U.S. Navy ship, in a
follow-up report last month, WND quoted a CINCPACFLT officer clarifying that the intention was not for Clinton to travel onboard a naval vessel. But rather, he said, “I believe that the concept was for a port visit by one of our ships concurrent with his visit.”
Three high-ranking sources — two Navy officers and one government appointee — have confirmed both the presidential trip to Vietnam and the discussions of the flag controversy. WND has since been contacted by congressional staffers who are monitoring the issue to assess if or when legislation might be appropriate to preclude such controversy in the future.
Bacon, who was Monica Lewinsky’s boss at the Defense Department,
headlines in April after a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. Pentagon Deputy Inspector General Donald Mancuso announced that although Bacon had leaked information from Linda Tripp’s private Pentagon security file to New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer, Bacon and his assistant, Clifford Bernath, would not be subjected to any criminal prosecution for their actions. Bacon had openly admitted to the leak in 1998, expressing regret for his actions.