- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2009

Amid the furor over controversies regarding Cabinet-nominee tax problems and the seismic battle over a nearly trillion-dollar economic rescue bill, President Obama made a little-noticed appointment that is now generating intrigue.

White House counsel research director. Though she is inside one of the most powerful legal offices in the land, Miss Daly holds no law degree and doesn’t list any legal training on her resume.

Her sole experience has been as an opposition researcher for Democratic political campaigns: She helped dig up dirt on rivals, or on her own nominee to prepare for attacks.

The addition to White House counsel Greg Craig’s staff has alarmed some Republicans, who consider it a politicization of the office, and has irritated others who say that Democratic lawmakers who railed against Republican opposition researchers in legal positions in the past are now silent.

“Daly does not have the qualifications to be holding a significant position in the White House counsel’s office,” said Mark Levin, a conservative lawyer and radio-show host who worked in the Reagan White House and as chief of staff for Attorney General Edwin Meese.

“Her only qualification is that she knows how to dig up dirt on other people,” he said.

A number of conservative and liberal lawyers and operatives confirmed that it is unusual for someone with Miss Daly’s background to be working in the White House counsel’s office, though some Clinton-era lawyers said that administration had non-lawyers working in the office.

The White House insists Miss Daly’s work will be limited to legal research, like that of a paralegal, and won’t stray into political muckraking.

“Shauna will be performing legal research in support of a team of lawyers doing traditional legal work at the White House,” said White House spokesman Ben LaBolt.

But even some Democrats said there is reason to be cautious about the presence of a political-opposition researcher inside a White House legal office that is supposed to be free of partisan influence.

“It is important for her to understand this is a new role, and if she ever feels there are politics creeping into her job, she should set up strong barriers to stop that,” said Faiz Shakir, research director at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank run by former Clinton administration Chief of Staff John Podesta.

Opposition researchers often use skills honed on a campaign to reveal damaging information about political opponents to reporters. But the move to the counsel’s office requires Miss Daly to change her modus operandi dramatically.

“That information stays in-house, and all the information is for the president’s counsel,” Mr. Shakir said. “Part of it is not talking to the press. That’s an important part. It’s also making sure your prior relationships understand you now have a new function and cannot operate with them in a way you have prior.”

On the Obama campaign, Miss Daly specialized in preparing for political attacks against Mr. Obama.

Thus, one scenario in which her skills would be useful to the White House would involve setting up a “murder board operation,” in which political nominees are subjected to simulated political attacks in order to prepare for the real thing.

If that is part of her job description, the timing of Miss Daly’s hiring would appear to be a response to problems the Obama administration has experienced with several of its nominees, most recently the withdrawal of Tom Daschle for secretary of health and human services because of a tax problem.

Although the White House confirmed that the counsel’s office has taken over the vetting process, it said Miss Daly has not been involved in any vetting of political appointees and will not do any work on future vetting. A separate team of people inside the counsel’s office will handle that task, the White House said.

Miss Daly has been doing opposition research for Democratic politicians since just after graduation in 2001 from Smith College. She began in 2002 as a researcher for Sen. Tim Johnson’s re-election campaign in South Dakota, and in 2004 she was research director for Betty Castor’s unsuccessful run at a Florida seat in the U.S. Senate.

In 2005, she served as research director for the unsuccessful New York mayoral bid of Gifford Miller, then the council speaker. From October 2005 to January 2007, before joining the Obama campaign, she was the deputy research director at the Democratic National Committee.

Mark Corrallo, a communications director at the Justice Department early in the Bush administration, said he was upset not about politicization but what he called a double standard in media coverage.

“If this had been a Republican, then we’d be hearing the howls: ‘How can you put a guy who worked in opposition research at the White House counsel’s office?’ ”

Mr. Corrallo raised the example of the political firestorm Democrats raised in 2007 when President Bush tried to name a Republican political-opposition researcher, Timothy Griffin, to a senior Justice Department job, the U.S. attorney for Arkansas’ Eastern District.

Democrats attacked Mr. Griffin because he was a former Republican National Committee operative who also worked for senior Bush adviser Karl Rove at the White House, before the U.S. attorney in eastern Arkansas was fired to make way for Mr. Griffin.

The maneuvering drew national attention because it became part of the scandal over the removal by top Justice officials of seven other U.S. attorneys across the country for questionable reasons.

But Mr. Corrallo, who has a long background in Republican politics, including work as a spokesman for Mr. Rove during the CIA leak scandal, pointed out that unlike Miss Daly, Mr. Griffin has a law degree and extensive legal experience as a judge advocate general in the U.S. military.

“Tim had served on a congressional committee as a lawyer. He also prosecuted cases for 10 years in the Army. He’s a real lawyer,” Mr. Corrallo said. “But because he had worked at the RNC and the White House political office, he was a hack.

“Now come back to this woman, who is not a lawyer, in a newly created position in the White House counsel’s office. It’s amazing what they’re doing. Her background is pure politics, and they put her in the White House counsel’s office,” he said.

Several Democratic senators who criticized Mr. Griffin - Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, Charles E. Schumer of New York, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island - did not respond to requests for comment.

The White House did not make Miss Daly available for comment.

But Democratic lawyers with experience in the White House defended the move.

Lanny Davis, who served as special counsel to President Clinton from 1996 to 1998, said the presence of a non-lawyer in the counsel’s office is “certainly justifiable.”

Mr. Davis said he did not have specific knowledge about Miss Daly or of the new position, but that he remembered having non-lawyers doing legal research at the White House counsel’s office in the Clinton White House.

“There were certainly interns doing legal research year round. I think we had a full-time or part-time paralegal,” said Mr. Davis, who writes a weekly news analysis for The Washington Times called Purple Nation.

Abner J. Mikva, White House counsel from 1994 to 1995, said the same thing.

“We had several non-lawyers attached to the office. One of them was doing research. Others were doing security matters, in addition to the vetting that the White House counsel’s office is sort of responsible for,” Mr. Mikva said.