U.S. official in fake reporters flap out of job

WASHINGTON Mon Oct 29, 2007 7:27pm EDT

Handcrews cut a fire break along a steep hillside as firefighters continue to fight the Santiago fire in Orange County October 27, 2007. REUTERS/Phil McCarten

Handcrews cut a fire break along a steep hillside as firefighters continue to fight the Santiago fire in Orange County October 27, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Phil McCarten

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Bush administration official whose department had government workers pose as journalists in a news conference has been dropped from a planned new job as media chief for the top U.S. spy agency.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence said on Monday that John Philbin, who until last week was external affairs director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, would not be taking up a similar job with the intelligence office.

"Mr. Philbin is not, nor is he scheduled to be, the director of public affairs for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence," the office said in a written statement.

Philbin accepted the intelligence job several weeks ago and had been due to start on Monday, office spokesman Ross Feinstein said. He declined to give additional details.

FEMA employees last Tuesday posed as reporters at a news conference in Washington about the Southern California wildfires. The briefing was called on short notice and no journalists were on hand when it started.

Instead, FEMA deputy director Harvey Johnson stood before a FEMA camera feeding live images to television networks and took questions from agency employees posing as reporters.

FEMA administrator David Paulison on Monday apologized for what he said were "inexcusable actions and remarkably bad judgment" shown at the FEMA press conference.

"Individuals involved have been admonished and additional disciplinary actions are possible," Paulison said in a statement.

Paulison also announced that a senior Homeland Security public affairs officer, Russ Knocke, would temporary take over the job Philbin held at FEMA.

Knocke said Philbin had been present at the FEMA press conference last week and had received a reprimand, although Philbin's role in the event was still unclear.

The Bush administration, which has been accused on several occasions of masking public relations efforts as journalism, sharply denounced the misrepresentation after it became public last Friday.

National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell has also faced congressional challenges to his own credibility over misstatements as he pushes for permanent authority to eavesdrop in international terrorism investigations.

Philbin, in a Washington Post article published on Saturday, expressed regret over the incident. "It was absolutely a bad decision. ... I should have stopped it," he said.

Asked about Philbin, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said, "We don't comment on personnel decisions."

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