The White House is pushing back against charges of favoritism towards a telecom firm Lightsquared, citing numerous instances in which administration officials have raised concerns about its plan to create a new wireless broadband network.
Lightsquared is trying to secure permission from the FCC to launch its new network, but there are concerns that its proposal would interfere with civilian and military GPS devices. The Daily Beast’s Eli Lake reported recently that two government officials, including an Air Force General, William Shelton, were asked by the White House to alter their testimony to include a suggestion that the Pentagon could address these concerns with 90 days of testing. OMB routinely reviews officials’ statements, so there’s nothing inherently wrong in providing suggestions as a general matter, but both ended up rejecting the language and Shelton reportedly felt pressured. Now House Republicans are demanding an investigation into whether donations to Democrats from Lightsquared CEO Philip Falcone and his wife influenced the administration’s behavior.
The White House argues that the favoritism charges don’t add up because they’ve raised complaints about the GPS issue from the start. Lawrence Strickling, administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, repeatedly cited the GPS issue in a Jan. 2011 letter to FCC chair Julius Genachowksi, saying that it “raises significant interference concerns that warrant full evaluation.” The FCC ended up granting a conditional waiver to Lightsquared to move ahead — but only if they could demonstrate through testing that their plan would not impact GPS.
A number of officials who have testified to Congress on the matter, including the two cited by Lake, Shelton have reported that testing thus far has found significant problems, assessments that the White House believes should insulate them from claims their testimony was inappropriately tweaked. Anthony Russo, director of the National Coordination Office for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing, testified in his prepared remarks last week that “LightSquared’s proposed system would create harmful interference throughout all three phases of its planned deployment” based on testing across multiple federal agencies. Another witness, Deputy Under Secretary at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Mary Glackin, wrote in her prepared remarks that Lightsquared’s initial plan “would cause serious performance degradation or a total loss of mission for a wide range of our operational systems, resulting in the loss of critical services and potential loss of life and property,” and that the company’s follow up proposal “still raises issues for high-precision GPS receivers” that warrant further testing.
“Before the FCC granted a conditional waiver to Lightsquared, the NTIA sent a letter to the FCC stating the Administration’s official position that Lightsquared should not be allowed to move forward unless interference issues were resolved,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz told TPM. “Indeed, every Administration witness testifying at every hearing on LightSquared has been explicit in identifying the problems for GPS, and the need to resolve interference problems before Lightsquared is allowed to move forward.”
Schultz added that the FCC, which is an independent agency, has denied that the White House has tired to influence its work on the issue.
But while the White House clearly has raised concerns about the GPS issue, the statements still don’t address the original concern from the Beast’s reporting: that they suggested these concerns could be addressed with 90 days of testing, a timetable that seemed overly optimistic to at least two officials. The White House argues that since OMB routinely offers guidance and the two officials were free to reject the suggestions and give their own testimony, there’s nothing to see there. Republicans on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology are not satisfied with that explanation, claiming that they’ve had difficulty obtaining the necessary information from the administration to properly evaluate the matter.
“Although we understand that OMB routinely reviews tesitmony presented by Administration officials to Congress, the fact that a four-star Air Force General was “chafed” by suggestions made in this case raises concerns about the appropriateness of the White House’s suggestions,” they wrote in a letter to the administration this week.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.