Project Censored: The Byrne ultimatum

The story behind a censored story that was killed by The Nation

Sometimes the story behind a story is just as juicy as the story itself. One of Project Censored's picks for the 2008 list - " target="blank_">"Senator Feinstein's Iraq Conflict" started out as a project funded by the Nation Institute, and was supposed to splash the cover of the Nation magazine prior to the November 2006 election. Instead, it took some interesting peregrinations - involving some charges of partisan political influence -- before it was finally printed in the North Bay Bohemian on January 24, 2007.

Petaluma-based freelance journalist Peter Byrne was originally paid $4,500 by the Nation Institute to research connections between lucrative defense contracts granted to Perini and URS companies, in which Richard C. Blum held stock, and the Senate Appropriations Military Construction subcommittee (MILCON) that funds the contracts-- and which includes Blum's wife, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, as a ranking member.

Blum's companies were involved with more than $1.5 billion in defense contracts between 2001 and 2005. Michael R. Klein, Blum's business partner and Feinstein's legal advisor, had been informing the senator about specific federal projects in which Perini had an interest, specifically to avoid conflict of interest issues, but Byrne reported Feinstein was not told about potential URS contracts. So, in the case of Perini, Feinstein would be informed and recuse herself from pertinent decisions, but with URS, she'd remain in the dark, and because the detailed project proposals don't include the names of the companies bidding, the senator wouldn't know it was URS.

"In theory, Feinstein would not know the identity of any of the companies that stood to contractually benefit from her approval of specific items in the military budget - until Klein told her," Byrne wrote.

According to Klein, a Senate Select Committee on Ethics ruled, in a confidential decision, that this was all above board.

But Byrne contends, "That these confidential rulings are contradictory is obvious and calls for explanation."

Furthermore, Byrne's research concluded that the senator could potentially look at the lists from Klein, compare them to the nameless funding requests and contracts coming before MILCON, and draw substantial conclusions on her own about where the money would end up.

"Klein declined to produce copies of the Perini project lists that he transmitted to Feinstein. And neither he nor Feinstein would furnish copies of the ethics committee rulings, nor examples of the senator recusing herself from acting on legislation that affected Perini or URS. But the Congressional Record shows that as chairperson and ranking member of MILCON, Feinstein was often involved in supervising the legislative details of military construction projects that directly affected Blum's defense-contracting firms," Byrne wrote.

A month after Byrne turned the story in to Bob Moser, who was the Nation's editor on the story, the piece was killed. In an email to Byrne, Moser wrote, "The main reason is that with Blum's sale of

Perini and URS stock last year, this became an issue of what Feinstein did rather than an ongoing conflict. Because of that, and also because Feinstein is not facing a strong challenge for re-election, the feeling here, finally, was that the story would not likely have the kind of impact we want from investigative stories."

Later in the email, Moser writes the story lacks a "smoking gun," apparently because Byrne lays the case for a perceived conflict of interest and relies on the testimony of non-partisan ethics and government experts for support.

Still, Byrne told us, "I was shocked.