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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Plane False

The conservative Web site Judicial Watch has made public e-mails to and from the Department of Defense regarding Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s travel requests. The organization claims in a press release that these e-mails show Pelosi "issue[s] unreasonable requests for military travel" and "treats the Air Force like her personal airline." A number of readers have asked us for our response to this information, given that we have debunked claims about Pelosi’s air travel. Some readers have even demanded that we correct our story.

However, the e-mails posted by Judicial Watch don’t refute our story — in fact, they back up what we’ve said. Just to recap: In December, e-mail rumors circulated that Pelosi had demanded the use of a lavish Air Force jet at taxpayer expense. We wrote that it had become standard practice after September 11 for the speaker of the House to have access to a military jet for shuttles back to his or her home district for security reasons — the speaker is No. 2 in the line of presidential succession, and the previous speaker, Republican Dennis Hastert, used a military jet, too. Andrews Air Force Base does have a large 45-seat jet, the military version of a Boeing 757 (it’s the one usually used by the vice president as Air Force 2), and according to an Andrews spokesman, Pelosi has used this jet once when no other aircraft was available. More often, she uses the military versions of the Gulfstream III and Gulfstream V planes, even though these much smaller 12-seaters can’t always make the coast-to-coast trip without a refueling stop, depending on headwinds. Pelosi is permitted to bring family members and other members of Congress on these shuttles back to her home city of San Francisco, as long as they reimburse the government to the tune of a commercial coach-class ticket.

Reading through the e-mails provided by Judicial Watch — as opposed to just reading Judicial Watch’s description of them — makes it clear that Pelosi’s family members and congressional colleagues were abiding by this reimbursement rule. Some of the e-mails between DOD and House staffers are devoted to hammering out reimbursement details. It’s also clear that the messages are about the disposition of smaller planes, not the 757-size jet, though Judicial Watch obfuscates that fact. The Web site repeats the rumor about Pelosi "requesting a 42-seat Air Force carrier to ferry the Speaker and her staff back and forth between San Francisco, CA and Washington, DC" and adds that Hastert used a 12-seater, implying that the e-mails catch Pelosi red-handed requesting huge planes for her personal transport. But Judicial Watch’s own chart shows Pelosi using only 12-seater Gulfstream equivalents for her travel to and from San Francisco. And one of the very e-mails the organization quotes specifically discusses the availability of G5s — 12-seaters — for general House use. Others discuss assigning the larger C-40Cs, the military equivalent of a Boeing 737, but again for general House member use, not for Pelosi’s coast-to-coast shuttles.

In fact, the vast majority of the e-mails are not about shuttles to and from Pelosi’s home district at all, but about congressional delegations (CODELs) to other states and countries – trips that are ostensibly for fact-finding purposes, for the most part, and generally take place during congressional recesses. Pelosi’s office oversees transportation for these trips for all members of the House, not just for the speaker herself. For instance, the quote: "This is not good news, and we will have some very disappointed folks, as well as a very upset Speaker," which Judicial Watch highlights, refers to the DOD’s difficulties finding appropriate planes for every House delegation over the 2007 Fourth of July recess. Pelosi did not head any of the delegations that were seeking aircraft at that time. Judicial Watch has pulled out quotes that make these e-mails sound like unusual or even outrageous requests by the speaker. In fact, they show staffers juggling limited military resources for all House members, not Pelosi asking for special treatment.

For further discussion of the discrepancy between Judicial Watch’s implications and the actual documents the group provides, see this March 11 report from ABC News. The ABC reporters also compared air travel requests by Pelosi with those of Hastert and found that "Pelosi made the equivalent of 20 round-trips between Washington (Andrews Air Force Base) and San Francisco. That’s an average of less than one round-trip per month. In contrast, former Speaker Hastert traveled home to his Illinois district virtually every weekend and, his former aides tell ABC News, he would almost always travel on military aircraft."