Heavy Vetting

by James Kirchick | August 12, 2009

Today, Barack Obama will award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 16 recipients. What should be a joyous affair, however, has been the subject of growing controversy due to the selection of Mary Robinson--a former United Nations official who presided over the notoriously anti-Zionist 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. For this, Obama has earned himself much criticism from the American Jewish community. Though her "failure of leadership" in her UN post is widely known, a source in the Obama White House that Robinson was "not fully vetted." And, in spite of Robinson's history, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs tried to wave the issue away when he said that, "There are statements that obviously, that she has made that the president doesn't agree with, and that's probably true for a number of the people that the president is recognizing for their lifetime contributions." Is it possible that the White House selected Robinson without knowing the extent of her unsavory record?

That's highly unlikely. The process by which the White House awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom is far more rigorous than one might imagine. While the vetting method may vary somewhat between administrations, its rough outlines were provided to me by a former staffer in the George W. Bush White House who was intimately involved in the process.

According to this official, the point-person for the Medal of Freedom is the White House staff secretary, who acts as the "central hub" for all documents that are going in or out of the Oval Office. This individual would put out a notice to the White House staff requesting recommendations for the medal. Once that list was compiled, the staff secretary would send it for review to Karl Rove, Bush's deputy chief of staff and senior advisor. This official told me that Chief of Staffs Andy Card and Josh Bolten were also "involved" early in the process during their respective tenures.

Once the list was whittled down to a manageable number, White House researchers conducted a thorough check of all available public records--including news clips, public statements, and tax records--to discover if anything in the individuals' history might be objectionable. "Problematic issues" were compiled into a report which was sent to the staff secretary for review. The former Bush administration official explained the thoroughness of the background checks to me thusly: "If we don't figure out all this stuff now, when it becomes public these are things that opponents can hit us on."

The already meticulous process doesn't end there. Next comes the Office of the White House Counsel: the lawyers. They check to make sure that none of the award recipients have violated any laws, and if they have, whether such violations rise to the level of striking their name from the list. Finally, the president reviews the selection with his chief of staff and top advisors.

If this routine sounds like something from a presidential race, that's because it's modeled on a campaign operation. "We were running an internal opposition research operation so we could protect the president and the presidency from embarrassment," my source says. But the background investigations do not only serve the interests of the White House; they are also intended to protect potential awardees as well. Forgoing an award to Robinson, this official says, "Would have saved her a lot of negative [publicity] and attacks and saved [the Obama administration] from headaches and having to deal with it."

If the Medal of Freedom protocol employed by the Obama administration resembles that of its predecessor (and there's little reason to believe that so straightforward a process dating back to the Kennedy administration has changed much), it's reasonable to assume that Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Senior Advisor David Axelrod--who also happen to be the two Jewish officials whom defenders of the administration's Middle East policies repeatedly point to as looking out for Israel's interests in the White House--were well aware that Robinson was on the list before it was released, as was the president himself. So either President Obama was not informed of Robinson's record or didn't think it warranted removing her from the list.

In short, it's exceedingly unlikely, given the extent of scrutiny paid to previous medal recipients, that the White House was unaware of concerns that would arise from this choice. Rather, it seems that the Obama administration does not feel that Robinson's antipathy towards Israel should disqualify her from receiving the medal, and that awarding it to her outweighs any potential damage to the administration's relationship with the Jewish and pro-Israel communities. Though it is highly doubtful that this White House will be the first to retract a Medal of Freedom (which I suggested earlier this week), the administration was almost certainly clear-eyed about the consequences of its selection.

James Kirchick is an assistant editor of The New Republic.

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