‘Nobody Is Collecting Names’: White House Responds to Charge It’s Monitoring Speech of Health Care Reform Opponents

Aug 6, 2009 1:32pm

As ABC News’ Rick Klein was first to report, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, was quite taken aback by White House Director of New Media Macon Phillips’s request that if citizens “get an email or see something on the web about health insurance reform that seems fishy,” they “send it to flag@whitehouse.gov."

In a White House blog, Phillips said he was trying to stem the flow of “disinformation," and Linda Douglass, communications director for the White Houses Health Reform Office, appeared in a web video saying, "there are a lot of very deceiving headlines out there right now, such as this one, take a look at this one. This one says, ‘Uncovered Video: Obama Explains How His Health Care Plan Will Eliminate Private Insurance.’

Well, nothing can be farther from the truth. You know, the people who always try to scare people whenever you try to bring them health-insurance reform are at it again. And they’re taking sentences and phrases out of context, and cobbling them together to leave a very false impression."

In response, Cornyn wrote to President Obama that he’s concerned “about a new White House program to monitor American citizens' speech opposing your health care policies, and to seek your assurances that this program is being carried out in a manner consistent with the First Amendment and America's tradition of free speech and public discourse.”

The Texas Republican said it seemed “inevitable that the names, email addresses, IP addresses, and private speech of U.S. citizens will be reported to the White House. You should not be surprised that these actions taken by your White House staff raise the specter of a data collection program.”

And he suggested that if President Bush had “asked Americans to forward emails critical of his policies to the White House,” President Obama “would have been leading the charge in condemning such a program-and I would have been at your side denouncing such heavy-handed government action. "
 
Asked about Cornyn's letter on Thursday afternoon, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said, "nobody is collecting names."

The blog and tips email was because, Gibbs said, "we have seen, and as I've discussed from this podium, a lot of misinformation around health care reform. Some of it I think spread purposely. We have used on many occasions the Web site to debunk things that are simply not true. We ask people if they have questions about health care reform and about what they're hearing about its affects on them, to let us know and we'd provide them information to show that that wasn't true."

Continued Gibbs: "but nobody is collecting names."

Douglass responded in a statement that “We want to be sure people have the facts  about health insurance reform that will lower costs, protect consumers from insurance regulations that deny them coverage and assure quality and affordable health care for all Americans."

Douglass also said that "We are not compiling lists or sources of information. We may post fact checks from time to time to be sure Americans know the truth about health insurance reform.”

Cornyn had asked the White House "to cease this program immediately" or at the very least "detail to Congress and the public the protocols that your White House is following to purge the names, email addresses, IP addresses, and identities of citizens who are reported to have engaged in 'fishy' speech."

When asked, Gibbs acknowledged that the White House is required by law to save all correspondence it receives.

"Obviously, the National Archives documents correspondence with the White House," he said.

Cornyn also asked if President Obama's "own past statements qualify as "disinformation'?" He cited as an example a clip from Douglass's 'Facts Are Stubborn Things" web video in which she said she sought to combat "disinformation."

"Is it 'disinformation' to note that in 2003 you said: 'I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer universal health care plan'?" Cornyn asked.

When asked today whether it is misinformation that in 2003 President Obama, then a state senator, supported a single-payer health care system, Gibbs suggested that since as a presidential candidate and president Mr. Obama has changed his position, and dropped his advocacy of single payer, the clips are misleading.

"If you look at the statements that have been put up on other Internet sites that splice a bunch of stuff together, and I think if you look at the answers that state senator, U.S. senator, and President Barack Obama has given on that," Gibbs said, "we hope to provide people with a full and accurate picture, not… only the words that opponents might want to see."

– jpt

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