Back in May, when the White House announced that President Obama would appoint an independent commission to investigate the BP oil disaster and the response to it, media reports said the group would "have a broad charter and wide investigative authority."
The breadth and independence of the panel now seem fully confirmed. The commission, headed by former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat, and former George H.W. Bush EPA Administrator William K. Reilly, has issued its initial reports blasting the White House's handling of the spill crisis.
In four reports that it published online Wednesday, the commission assails the Obama administration's "over-optimism" in assessing the spill's impact. The documents also attack the White House for reportedly blocking the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from releasing information regarding potential worst-case scenarios.
"While it is not clear that this misplaced optimism affected any individual response effort, it may have affected the scale and speed with which national resources were brought to bear," one of the reports states.
Another report says: "By initially underestimating the amount of oil flow and then, at the end of the summer, appearing to underestimate the amount of oil remaining in the Gulf, the federal government created the impression that it was either not fully competent to handle the spill or not fully candid with the American people about the scope of the problem."
The documents say that some time in late April or early May, the administration denied a request by NOAA to publicize the most harmful effects of a major oil spill in the wake of the April 20 Deepwater Horizon explosion. Even worse, the commission says that in the early phases of the spill, the White House relied on unconfirmed estimates that wound up lowballing the spill's impact, placing the daily discharge from the Deepwater site at a mere 1,000 barrels of oil. And what source did the government endorse in lieu of the NOAA's proposed course of research? "It appears the figure came from BP," one report dryly notes, "without supporting documentation."
Of course, in the weeks to come, the government would be forced repeatedly to revise upward its official estimate of the well's flow rate. Eventually, investigators established that at least 60,000 barrels of oil was spewing from the busted well each day -- a number in line with the estimates of many independent researchers, beholden neither to the feds nor to BP. In August, government officials insisted that the "vast majority" of the spilled oil was gone from the gulf -- even though independent researchers are again roundly disputing the optimistic official White House line.
Senate Republicans have so far blocked congressional bids to beef up the commission's authority with the power to issue subpoenas in order to compel witnesses to testify. (The measure passed the House by a vote of 420-1 back in June.) Both Graham and Reilly have lobbied hard for the subpoena power -- and perhaps now that the panel has taken Obama to the woodshed, Senate Republicans will have a change of heart.
(Photo of Graham, left, and Reilly: Getty)