Louis Fisher: Expert on Congress's Power Claims He Was Muzzled for Faulting Bush





A dispute involving a researcher at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service is fueling a debate over whether analysts throughout the government are being muzzled to prevent criticism of Bush administration policies.

Louis Fisher, a 36-year veteran of the agency and an expert on the separation of powers, said his superiors wrongly punished him for giving interviews and publishing scholarly articles under his own name that contained criticism of the White House. Top officials deny those allegations, saying they were simply trying to protect the agency's reputation for nonpartisanship and objectivity.

The dispute has thrust the research service, a branch of the Library of Congress, into a debate about whether the Bush administration is trying to control the flow of information to lawmakers and the public. Earlier in the week, a political appointee resigned from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration after coming under fire for limiting access to an expert on global warming. The White House also faces accusations that it misled lawmakers about the true cost of the new Medicare drug benefit.

The standoff between Mr. Fisher and the research service's top leaders comes at a tense time for the agency. Its staffers have been complaining for months about a plan to cut 59 employees, many of them women and minorities, because of budgetary cutbacks. As of last fall, the research service had a total staff of 710, according to its own figures.

A spate of investigations by the service into hot-button issues, like the administration's domestic spying program, have raised its visibility and led to renewed scrutiny of its work. Reports questioning the legality of the spying program drew rebukes from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Peter Hoekstra (R., Mich.), who said the agency was trying to evaluate a "highly sensitive intelligence issue on which it had no firsthand knowledge."

The current dispute began in early January, after Mr. Fisher was interviewed by Government Executive, a publication about the federal government. He was quoted as saying that Congress had been overly deferential to the Bush administration's efforts to punish whistleblowers or otherwise suppress information. According to Mr. Fisher, his supervisor, Robert Dilger, walked into his office three days later and gave him a critical memo that said the interview meant that readers would assume that Mr. Fisher's "work cannot be presumed to be balanced."

"This is an intolerable result, and places in jeopardy your ability to continue to provide service to the Congress on this subject," Mr. Dilger wrote in the memo. "Such conduct on your part displays a lack of judgment in a matter on which you have been counseled on numerous occasions."

Mr. Fisher responded with a long memo to research-service Director Daniel Mulhollan, describing Mr. Dilger's letter as "offensive, ill-conceived, uninformed and strikingly lacking in balance, judgment and professionalism," as well as inappropriately threatening. He asked for a new supervisor and requested that the letter be removed from his personnel file.

Mr. Dilger said in a phone interview that his memo was "an internal communication from me to one of my employees that would be inappropriate for me to comment on," and referred questions to the Library of Congress media office. A spokeswoman there declined to say whether the letter would remain in Mr. Fisher's file or whether he would continue to report to Mr. Dilger.



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