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Report: White House edit led to errant claim on drilling moratorium

By the CNN Wire Staff
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Watchdog agency: Administration's erroneous claim didn't break federal law
  • The Obama administration said its drill halt had been "peer reviewed"
  • Salazar apologized after experts complained about the claim
  • Republicans accused the White House of manipulating data

(CNN) -- The Obama administration didn't violate federal law when it incorrectly asserted that its plans for a six-month halt to offshore oil drilling had been "peer reviewed" by experts, an independent watchdog agency reported Wednesday.

The erroneous claim was included in a report issued a month into the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and stemmed from a White House edit of an Interior Department draft, according to the report Wednesday from the department inspector-general's office. A panel of scientists and engineers did examine new safety recommendations for offshore oil drilling following the undersea gusher in April, but did not study the planned drilling moratorium that was announced in late May, the report found.

In June, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar apologized for the error both in writing and in person to scientists who complained about the language, the report states. Investigators found the problem occurred when White House officials "revised and re-ordered" the report before its issuance, "placing the peer review language immediately following the moratorium recommendation."

"This caused the distinction between the secretary's moratorium recommendation -- which had not been peer-reviewed -- and the safety recommendations contained in the 30-Day Report -- which had been peer reviewed -- to become effectively lost," the report states.

A group of congressional Republicans, including Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, had asked the inspector-general's office to investigate whether the misrepresentation violated the federal Information Quality Act. That law requires standards of integrity for information put out by federal agencies.

Vitter and other lawmakers, including some Democrats from Gulf Coast states, criticized the halt to drilling as an unnecessary blow to the region's economy. In a statement issued Wednesday, the newly re-elected senator said the report "reveals exactly what I suspected all along."

"Obama administration officials appear to have deliberately disregarded the Information Quality Act to push their destructive moratorium that has crushed job growth along the Gulf Coast," Vitter said. "I initially requested this investigation on June 16 because I wanted to make sure that the federal government was basing policy decisions that would directly impact so many Louisianians on science -- not politics. Unfortunately, this report reveals the contrary," Vitter said.

And Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, said the report "confirms that the decision to impose a drilling moratorium was based on data that was manipulated by the administration."

But the Interior Department "appears to have adequately remedied the IQA concerns by communicating directly with the experts, offering a formal apology, and publicly clarifying the nature of the peer review," the watchdog agency found.

Interior Department spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said the report shows "there was no intent to mislead the public." And the White House said its officials "properly coordinated review for a draft document," and that the mistakes were quickly corrected.

White House spokesman Bill Burton said the moratorium "was correctly based on the need for adequate spill response, well containment and safety measures, and we stand behind that decision."