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SIDEBAR: McCaleb tips reveal White House politics

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WASHINGTON - Both Neal McCaleb and the Defense Department stoutly deny it had anything to do with the way an Iraq reconstruction contract slipped through the fingers of Chickasaw Nation Industries, but the former head of the BIA could hardly have endeared himself to the White House political operation by his recent appearance in a Wall Street Journal article.

In the July 29 story by Tom Hamburger, McCaleb confirmed that White House political strategist Karl Rove intervened in the Interior Department's 2002 decision to open the irrigation floodgates in the upper Klamath Basin. Because of endangered species issues raised by environmentalists and Indian tribes, the Interior Department had shut off the irrigation flow from the Klamath River the year before, arousing anger and civil disobedience protests among local farmers. The "Klamath Basin war" also resulted in several violent incidents directed at local Indians.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Rove made a PowerPoint presentation to a meeting of senior Interior officials in January 2002, using polling data to show the impact of the Klamath River situation on the re-election chances of Oregon's Republican senator Gordon Smith. The article quoted McCaleb (misspelling his first name) as saying the meeting had "a chilling effect."

In March, Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman journeyed to Klamath Falls along with Sen. Smith to personally turn the wheel that opened the irrigation flow. She also offered a deal that promised to return some federal lands to the Klamath Basin tribes, but Sue Masten, chairman of the downstream Yurok River tribes, showed up with a band of demonstrators to protest the reduction in the river flow.

Later that summer, 30,000 salmon died in the lower Klamath River in what was called the largest fish kill in the history of the West. (Fishery officials said that disease and high heat also contributed to the die-off.)

Although McCaleb and his former deputy Wayne Smith were cited as sources, McCaleb apparently also defended the 2002 decision. He is quoted as saying that the biggest factor was a report from the independent National Research Council, which questioned the science behind Interior's earlier Klamath flow decisions.

McCaleb, a Chickasaw who was head of Oklahoma's Department of Transportation before going to Washington, is back in Ada, Okla., to direct CN Industries, the tribe's 8(a) contracting company. Although CNI currently holds seven government information technology contracts totaling $142 million, it was told the day before the Wall Street Journal article appeared that it would not be getting a hoped-for Iraq reconstruction contract. McCaleb told Indian Country Today, however, that that decision had clearly been made before the White House even knew about the article.