Republicans — led by the Governor of Missouri and the Republican National Committee — are alleging that there is something untoward about the "Truth Squad" the Obama campaign has set up in the "Show Me" State. The problem, these Republicans say, is that these "Truth Squad" members are prosecutors and sheriffs with law enforcement powers, thus creating an atmosphere where Missourians might be afraid of being prosecuted for criticizing Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.
There is no evidence, however, that these prosecutors are threatening to use their prosecutorial powers in such a way.
And despite GOP complaints that the mere presence of prosecutors on the "Truth Squad" could intimidate Obama’s critics, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and his running mate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin have used prosecutors on their "Truth Squads" too, prompting no complaints from the GOP at the time.
The Missouri Truth Squad, an Obama campaign press release stated last week, would “respond quickly, forcefully, and aggressively when John McCain or his allies launch inaccurate claims or character attacks about Barack Obama, or when they distort Barack Obama’s record or plans.”
So what’s the problem?
Many of the Obama Missouri Truth Squad members have law enforcement powers, such as St. Louis County Circuit Attorney Bob McCulloch, St. Louis City Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, and Jefferson County Sheriff Glenn Boyer.
A local TV story took those facts and then stated that, "Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign is asking Missouri law enforcement to target anyone who lies or runs a misleading television ad during the presidential campaign," which doesn’t seem a fair representation of the formation of the "Truth Squad."
Republicans immediately began painting this as a situation where the Obama campaign is using its law enforcement friends to threaten to lock people up if they say something negative about Obama.
Gov. Matt Blunt, on official state stationery, said, “What Senator Obama and his helpers are doing is scandalous beyond words, the party that claims to be the party of Thomas Jefferson is abusing the justice system and offices of public trust to silence political criticism with threats of prosecution and criminal punishment."
None of the prosecutors or sheriffs on the "Truth Squad" have said they’d use their law enforcement powers as part of their task as "Truth Squad" members.
But Blunt said that wasn’t the point.
"The only conceivable purpose of Messrs. McCulloch, Obama and the others is to frighten people away from expressing themselves, to chill free and open debate, to suppress support and donations to conservative organizations targeted by this anti-civil rights, to strangle criticism of Mr. Obama, to suppress ads about his support of higher taxes, and to choke out criticism on television, radio, the Internet, blogs, e-mail and daily conversation about the election," Blunt said. "Enlisting Missouri law enforcement to intimidate people and kill free debate is reminiscent of the Sedition Acts – not a free society.”
St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch called the notion that he was going to use his official powers to prosecute people who lie about Obama "nonsense."
"I don’t know what charge anybody could be talking about there is no such thing; libel is a civil matter entirely," McCulloch said. "What I said was if it is a lie I’ll call somebody on it and say that’s a lie; tell us the truth. That gets morphed by those with these very sinister motives," the prosecutor said. He added, "It’s morphed into ‘they are trying to intimidate people into not talking.’"
St. Louis City Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce added in a statement: "As a citizen, I believe that elections should be about issues. I also have enormous respect for our First Amendment and freedom of speech. My sole purpose in participating in this initiative is about getting truthful information to the voters. This has never been or never will be about prosecuting people. Clearly there are those who are attempting to twist the purpose of this initiative for their own benefit. This attack is a great example of how the truth is distorted in campaigns and what we’re trying to stand up against."
But the deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee, Frank Donatelli, told the News-Leader, that even though the Democratic prosecutors “haven’t specifically said” they would use their powers to fight for Obama, but “I don’t think you have to use the power. I think if you just call out somebody and you have the power, you’ve made your point. It’s not that you have to prosecute a guy, but people think you might.”
That’s why prosecutors don’t typically become members of campaign truth squads, Donatelli said, because the prosecutor’s presence on the truth squad “has a chilling affect on people’s rights of free speech.”
This story broke last week and has been building since.
Largely unreported is the dial-back from reporter John Mills, whose story seemed to imply exactly what the GOP is charging — that Obama has enlisted a squad of prosecutors to go after anyone who criticizes the Democratic presidential candidate — but has since said that "in the retelling of the story, it got out of control."
“If they think a group has put out a misleading ad, they’re basically going to call a press conference and say the ad is misleading," Mills told the News-Leader yesterday. "I’m sure the Republicans would do the same thing."
Of the concern that prosecutors should not be on truth squads — which may seem a legitimate criticism — it could be observed that McCain’s South Carolina primary "Truth Squad" included Attorney General Henry McMaster and Seventh Circuit Solicitor Trey Gowdy, a prosecutor.
The recently created "Palin Truth Squad" includes District Attorney of Dona Ana County (NM) Susana Martinez.