It's Rathergate all over again, and the same vigilant entities that brought about to the collapse of CBS News could now also cause heads to roll among Democratic Senate leadership staffers and further shame multiple news organizations that would appear to have fallen for another document hoax.
Very quietly, Senate Republican leadership aides to both Sen. Rick Santorum and Sen. Mitch McConnell, as well as the Senate Republican Policy Committee, have been using the Senate recess break to reconstruct the purported distribution of a document that media outlets, including ABC News, the New York Times and a number of regional newspapers, identified as Senate "GOP talking points" on the Terri Schiavo fight that unfolded over the weekend.
"There is a process here for documents like this that are passed around down on the Senate floor, which is where the media claimed that the 'talking points' were being distributed last Thursday," says a Republican policy committee staffer. "There was a lot of stuff going on Thursday, but a document like this one was not being distributed. As far as we know, the only documents being handed out related to votes on a series of amendments being pushed through before the recess. Schiavo wasn't part of that package."
The document, which was posted online by ABC News, as well as several Democratic-leaning websites, was unsigned, bore no Senate office letterhead, and was rife with errors, including the incorrect Senate bill number and the misspelling of Schiavo's name. For days, Republicans denied any knowledge of the document, and a number of Republican Senators claimed they had never seen it.
Beginning over the weekend, when doubts about the document first appeared on the blogosphere, the document's provenance began to unspool. Conservative blogs Powerline, In the Agora, and Fishkite all have been out front on the story. A number of blogs found language almost identical to the "talking points" on a post at the Traditional Values Coalition website. ABC News then posted the language of the purported document but not the actual document itself.
ABC News earlier this week was claiming to a number of online reporters that it never intended to create the impression that this was a Republican-generated document, only that it had been circulated among Republican Senators. The Washington Post claimed that it had confirmed the document's provenance, but could not reveal the source.
However, Republican leadership staffers now believe the document was generated out of the Democratic opposition research office set up recently by Sen. Harry Reid, and distributed to some Democratic Senate staffers claiming it was a GOP document, in the hope -- or more likely expectation -- that it would then be leaked by those Democrats to reporters. In fact, the New York Times stated that it was Democratic staffers who were distributing the "talking points" document.
"Democrats have tried to pin this document on Santorum's staff, on [Sen. Bill] Frist's staff, on [Sen. Sam] Brownback's staff," says a Senate leadership staffer. "Watching the investigation underway on line has energized us enough up here to want to at least confirm that we weren't the source, and everything we have found would confirm that Republicans didn't generate this memo. This is just amateurish, and perhaps Democratic staffers think we put out work product like this, but it's laughable."
The staffer added that while just about any House or Senate staffer with an email account could readily distribute a document, it was a huge stretch to believe that such a document would end up being widely distributed by or even to Senators in the cloakroom or in the well of the Senate. "This has all the telltale signs of a political dirty trick," says the staffer.
Other Republican staffers blame not only Democrats but also the mainstream media which once again put out a story to embarrass Republicans before checking all the facts first.
Republicans staffers looking into the "talking points" case believe that at least some of the language used for the original Traditional Values Coalition may have come from documents pulled together by the staff of Sen. Mel Martinez, who has been out front on the Schiavo case, and pressed hard for federal action to save her life. But there is no evidence that the talking points were a Martinez staff product.
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