article

09.19.11

White House’s Testimony ‘Guidance’

LightSquared, a wireless network backed by billionaire Democratic donor Philip Falcone, could beam broadband Internet everywhere—but some military officials fear it could interfere with critical GPS signals. Now, as The Daily Beast's Eli Lake exclusively reports, two U.S. officials allege the White House tried to influence their testimony to rush key testing, to LightSquare's benefit.

A second government official has come forward saying the White House tried to influence his testimony concerning a wireless broadband project backed by a Democratic donor that military officials fear might impair sensitive satellite navigation systems.

Anthony Russo, director of the National Coordination Office for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing, told The Daily Beast he rejected “guidance” from the White House’s Office of Budget and Management suggesting he tell Congress that the government’s concerns about the project by the firm LightSquared could be resolved in 90 days, a timetable favorable to the company’s plans.

“They gave that to me and presumably the other witnesses,” Russo said. “There is one sentence I disagreed with, which said that I thought the testing could be resolved in 90 days. So I took it out.”

Russo said he objected to that language because “I have low confidence that we can complete all of the testing in 90 days.” He estimated that such testing would take at least six months. Russo called the White House efforts to alter his testimony “guidance rather than pressure.”

Russo’s comments come just days after four-star Air Force Gen. William Shelton, who heads U.S. Space Command, told Congress in a classified briefing that he felt pressured by the White House to change his testimony about the same project to make it more favorable to the company.

Shelton also rejected the suggested edits and testified he has concerns LightSquared’s project could interfere with Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) signals key to military navigation and targeting systems.

Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman, said the OMB review of the witness testimony was routine and not designed to curry political favor, and that all the witnesses who testified to Congress were allowed to state their concerns about the LightSquared project and its potential ramifications for conflicting with GPS signals.

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“Every administration witness testifying at every hearing on LightSquared has been explicit in identifying the problems it would cause for GPS, and that LightSquared should not be allowed to move forward unless those interference issues are resolved,” he said. “If OMB professionals were making sure that testimony before Congress was consistent with administration policy, that means they were doing their jobs because OMB reviews and clears all agency communications with Congress, including testimony, to ensure consistency in the administration’s policy positions.”

“We did not ask for any special favors and we have not asked for any special handouts, and consequently did not receive any special favors or handouts,” Falcone said.

House Republicans now want to know whether the White House’s suggested edits to the testimony amounted to an effort to help the company.

Philip Falcone, who owns a majority stake in LightSquared, told the Beast that while he met with White House officials and a federal regulator he “did not ask for any special favors and we have not asked for any special handouts, and consequently did not receive any special favors or handouts.”

Falcone acknowledged, however, he told anyone in the federal government willing to listen that testing his company’s signal for GPS interference on commercial and military equipment “should not take that long.”

“Everything is already set up, the labs are set up. All we need are the list of devices that need to be tested. We have been telling the people who are asking for the testing of this for months now,” he said in an interview Monday.

The Beast obtained the paragraph the OMB asked government witnesses to insert into their recent congressional testimony, which says in part, “We hope that testing can be complete within 90 days.”

LightSquared has told Congress and regulators that the strength of its signal was approved in the mid 2000s by a Republican-led Federal Communications Commission and that its proposal to convert its satellite license to one for terrestrial mobile wireless devices would not change these interference issues.

Nonetheless, the issue of the timeline for testing is crucial to LightSquared, which wants to build a new wireless broadband service on a spectrum close to GPS signals as part of President Obama’s mandate to expand wireless access for Americans.

“The FCC mandated the most aggressive build-out in the history of telecommunications,” Falcone said. “We expect that we will have consumers on this network by the second half of 2012.”

Harold Furchtgott-Roth, a former Republican-appointed FCC commissioner, said it was highly unusual to put a timeline on the kinds of technical tests discussed in the OMB paragraph.

“Primarily these types of tests sometimes have a finite end and sometimes they don’t,” he said. “Sometimes they go on for long periods of time. To pick a number and say the tests have to end by a certain date is not consistent with commission precedent. Secondly, you don’t know what you will find when you do the test; you can’t predetermine that you will absolutely be finished after 90 days.”

Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA), the chairman of the House Science Committee’s Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, said he was troubled that four out of the five government witnesses before his Sept. 8 hearing had “identical language in their written testimony reflecting the administration’s view of the LightSquared project. The language diminished the otherwise blunt assessments the witnesses articulated during the hearing when pressed by committee members.”

Last week, the Center for Public Integrity first reported a batch of emails between LightSquared executives and staffers of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). The nonprofit investigative journalism organization reported that LightSquared CEO Sanjiv Ahuja met with the chief of staff for OSTP just eight days before Falcone and his wife gave $30,400 each to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). Ahuja also contributed $30,400 to the Democratic Party, though he made the same contribution to the Republican Party in 2009.

Falcone told The Daily Beast he made the donations to the DSCC because his wife was hosting a fundraiser for women in politics. “She asked me to contribute,” he said. “If I had said no, all hell would have broken loose.” He also said in a separate interview with Fox News that he was a registered Republican.

Falcone had one meeting with an official from the OSTP, he told The Daily Beast. He also said he met with FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in September 2009. “I did not want the FCC to be surprised,” he said. “It was a kind of in and out thing.”

Falcone said he does not believe he has received any favors from the White House. “I met in September of 2009 with somebody from the Office of Science and Technology. I never met Obama and I never met his advisers,” he said. “The discussion was around wireless in the marketplace and some of the things we were thinking and some of the different things we were doing.”

Furchtgott-Roth questioned the process by which the FCC granted a waiver to LightSquared so that it may use its initial license for satellite bandwidth to service terrestrial mobile devices.

“In January the commission said LightSquared could use its license for exclusive terrestrial purposes,” he said. “That decision from January was an unprecedented and surprising development. That they would make this decision at the bureau level and not at the full commission level is just stunning.”