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DOJ stumbles to explain Indian health 'white paper'

As furor builds over the Bush administration's firing of several U.S. Attorneys, another political caper hangs over the Department of Justice.

Just who was responsible for the "white paper" that derailed the Indian Health Care Improvement Act?

First, there's the official answer. "I was told that no one in the Department of Justice released it," Frederick Breckner III, a deputy assistant general, said last week.

Then, there's the unofficial one. "The evidence is that the Department of Justice put out a white paper to kill this bill," said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

Neither explanation comes as a surprise in Washington, given the department's mishandling of the federal prosecutor flap. U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales acknowledged on Tuesday that "mistakes were made" on that matter, though he rejected calls to resign.

But for Indian Country, no answer can ever be satisfying. Months later, tribal leaders are still smarting over the defeat of legislation they have been working since 1999 to reauthorize.

"We believe that it was the reason that our momentum towards passage by the Senate for unanimous consent was derailed," said Rachel Joseph, the co-chair of the national steering committee to reauthorize the IHCIA, during an appearance on Native America Calling yesterday.

Getting to the bottom of the controversy has been tough. The white paper wasn't signed and didn't come on official DOJ letterhead.

Yet somehow it landed in the hands of the Senate Republican Steering Committee on September 29, 2006, the last day before the Senate went into recess. The timing left no doubt, at least in the minds of Indian Country, as to the Bush administration's motives.

Yet tribal leaders, as well as Dorgan, were puzzled when Breckner attempted to explain how it all happened. In his testimony last week, he said the department intended for the white paper to be released after the September recess.

Breckner's response "was a little confusing to some of us because if they were to release it after the session, the bill could have been enacted by then, and I'm not sure what the purpose of that timing would have been," Joseph said yesterday.

Dorgan further noted that, at the time, the Senate hadn't committed to returning to work after the November elections. "It was not clear in September that that we were going to be back for a lame-duck session," he said.

Dorgan also took issue with the reason for the white paper's existence. Reading straight from a script, Breckner claimed the staff of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee asked DOJ to come up with a written document that outlined concerns with the bill.

"I can simply say to you that neither Sen. [John] McCain's staff nor my staff ... were privy to this and I don't believe either of those staffs asked you to prepare this," said Dorgan. McCain was chairman of the committee during the 109th Congress.

"I don't believe for a moment that 'no one' released it," Dorgan continued, using Breckner's own words. "It shows up at one [political] caucus accidentally? I don't think so."

Though it appears no one at DOJ will accept responsibility for the white paper, tribes hope the 110th Congress can finally reauthorize the IHCIA. A House version was introduced earlier this month, and the House Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing today on the bill.

"We're hoping it will be passed by September," Joseph said yesterday. "That's at least the goal to work towards."

The Senate version is still in the works, and Dorgan has vowed to make it a priority.

House Bill:
Indian Health Care Improvement Act Amendments of 2007 (H.R.1328)

Relevant Documents:
Letter to President Bush | Letter to Alberto Gonzales | DOJ White Paper

Relevant Links:
Indian Health Service -
National Indian Health Board -