Rice told embassies to limit aid for Obama, McCain

July 21, 2008 6:09:33 PM PDT
As Democrat Barack Obama began an overseas tour, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told employees at U.S. embassies to provide only minimal help to visiting presidential candidates.

The orders went to all overseas posts and told government employees not to do anything that might show favoritism or amount to improper campaign activity. The department said the State Department issued similar orders ahead of presumed Republican nominee John McCain's overseas tours to Iraq, Mexico and elsewhere this year, but limited the communication to embassies in countries the Republican planned to visit.

Officials said the orders had been in the works for months and it was just coincidence that they were issued Thursday, the day the presumptive Democratic candidate left Washington for a much-watched trip to Afghanistan, Iraq, the Middle East and Europe.

Government employees are prohibited from certain political activity on the job and cannot perform campaign work on the public payroll. Rice's orders give examples of things embassy employees should not do, such as arrange high-level meetings for visiting candidates or get involved in nitty-gritty logistical details.

As an example of appropriate logistical help, Rice's memo, sent late Thursday, said, "If the campaign staff wants to rent a bus for press, tell them where they can rent a bus."

Obama traveled to Afghanistan and Iraq in his capacity as a member of Congress and was joined by Sens. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Jack Reed, D-R.I. Like his Afghanistan stop, his visit to Iraq had heavy security and limited media access. Visiting U.S. officials and lawmakers often invite reporters to cover their visits and some hold news conferences with leaders in Baghdad, but Obama has been shielded from the media.

In Iraq, journalists were able to watch him depart from meetings and managed to shout questions, but the replies were brief and Obama didn't break stride. His movements around Iraq were also kept secret by U.S. officials.

The Defense Department released three brief videos of Obama meeting with troops in Basra and President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki in Baghdad's heavily secured Green Zone.

Obama's advisers have insisted the visit is not a campaign trip but a chance to strengthen international relationships. Still, he traveled to the war zone with two potential vice presidential candidates ? Hagel and Reed.

Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy said embassy employees began asking questions about what they could and could not do for Sen. McCain several months ago, and further questions arose about the Obama trip. In both cases, embassy staff wondered how to treat presidential candidates who are also sitting members of Congress, who are normally accorded extensive embassy help when they travel overseas.

These ... trips don't quite fit neatly into something we regularly publish because it happens only every four years," Kennedy said. "So someone said 'Aha, let us do the worldwide notification."

State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said there was nothing unusual about the instructions or their timing, but would not provide the full text.

"I don't have any information to show that it was anything but us providing information to the field about what we're expecting our folks to be doing," Gallegos said Monday.

Gallegos said there was no "specific reason that because he, this specific candidate, is going out that we now have to remind everybody."

Rice's order, first reported by The Washington Times, makes clear that the rules apply to either candidate, and discuss the differences between a congressionally chartered trip and one organized under the auspices of a political campaign.

The orders tell diplomats and bureaucrats overseas to treat the candidates as "members of Congress visiting in personal or semi-personal capacities," but "with additional restrictions based on rules related to political activity."

Under ordinary circumstances, diplomats might meet congressional delegations at the airport, set up briefings with the host government, and arrange sightseeing or shopping tours.

Obama's trip is further complicated by the fact that two fellow senators traveled with him during his visits to Afghanistan and Iraq over the past several days, but Obama will continue solo for other stops in the Middle East and Europe.