President Barack Obama says it’s his responsibility to make sure the massive oil spill creeping across the Gulf of Mexico is plugged and the shoreline and pelicans coated in the black goo are scrubbed clean, but a premature criminal investigation by his attorney general threatens to interfere with the cleanup.
Atty. Gen. Eric Holder launched his inquiry into criminal charges against BP, but the ongoing spill is far from being under control and officials are still trying to determine what caused the catastrophe.
“This is not the time to be focusing on a criminal investigation, and I have to believe that is part of the effort of the Obama Administration to look like they are doing something,” said Jack Coleman, a senior attorney and advisor at the Interior Department from 1989 through 2003 under both Presidents Bush and President Clinton.
“It’s just politics, BP knows that its just showmanship for public consumption,” Coleman said. “This is more smoke than fire.”
Dan Kish, senior vice president of policy at the Institute for Energy Research, a free-market think tank, said the administration seems more focused on headlines than action.
“The President’s biggest problem is that he has decided this is a political issue and his response has been political and therefore not focused on what should happen, which is finding out what went wrong, correcting it, and getting back to the business of producing oil this country needs,” Kish said.
“Honestly, when your first response is to send in the lawyers, you have to question what they are really after, is it the truth, or headlines?” Kish said.
As disturbing images of pelicans drenched in oil saturated the cable news networks and the front pages of newspapers nationwide, President Obama made his third trip to Louisiana Friday. A pool report of the event said he was concerned the company might be “lawyering up.”
Earlier in the week on Tuesday, Holder made his own trip to Louisiana and said the Justice Department will be meticulous and aggressive in its investigation.
“We will make certain that those responsible clean up the mess they have made and restore or replace the natural resources lost or injured in this tragedy,” Holder. “And we will prosecute to the full extent any violations of the law.”
“We will not rest until justice is done,” Holder said.
The attorney general said he is reviewing numerous federal laws including the Clean Water Act, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and Endangered Species Act.
There are numerous federal government agencies involved that need to stay focused on what caused the explosion that killed 11 workers and unleashed the flood of oil, and to prevent such a disaster from happening in the future, Coleman said. “They don’t need to interrupt the activity going on, that’s the important thing.”
Initiating a criminal probe now will only put a chill on critical communication between the government and the oil company, Coleman and Kish said.
“If they think they are being viewed as a criminal target, are they going to be concerned about what they say? Most lawyers would tell them to take the 5th Amendment,” Coleman said.
“This is the exact wrong time to be doing any kind of criminal saber-rattling,” Coleman said. “The most important thing is that we find out what went wrong and why, and fix it, so it doesn’t happen again.”
Kish said the investigation “is clearly going to have a chilling effect.”
“People will be reluctant because of possible criminal prosecution to give the government the information it needs to assess what really happened, which is why this is such an ill-advised thing to do while they are attempting to stop (the leak) and learn the consequences,” Kish said.
Coleman was critical of the federal response, which he says has been “very slow.” In particular, he points to the construction of barriers to protect outlying marshes requested by Louisiana Gov.
Bobby Jindal, but delayed for weeks pending approval by the Army Corps of Engineers.
“So much damage to the marshes could have been avoided, so much damage will have to be laid at the feet of the people who did not act quickly,” Coleman said.
Meanwhile, Tony Hayward, chief executive of BP, dismissed the criminal investigation in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph in London and said it will not be a distraction.
"I’m not anxious about being arrested," Hayward said.
"The criminal investigation will proceed and will draw whatever conclusion it draws. The only thing I’m losing sleep about is the leak," Hayward said.
Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen made the rounds on the Sunday talk shows and called the situation “a siege across the entire gulf” on CBS’s Face the Nation.
“What we’re trying to do is fight this thing offshore,” Allen said on ABC’s “This Week” program. “And this is a war. It’s an insidious war, because it’s attacking, you know, four states one at a time,” Allen said.
As the disaster rolls past day 50, the family members of the 11 men killed when the oil rig exploded will travel to the White House this week where Obama will offer his condolences.
Cartoon courtesy of Brett Noel