WASHINGTON, DCCousin Wattle, the official National Thanksgiving Turkey who was to have been pardoned by President Bush in an annual White House ceremony that dates back to the Truman administration, is currently being held without formal charges or access to legal counsel, White House press secretary Scott McClellan confirmed Tuesday.
McClellan said that Wattle, a 41-pound White Holland tom, is in custody after having been judged a "potential security risk" to the president Monday.
"Cousin Wattle's conduct prior to the pardoning ceremony prompted Justice Department officials to authorize the bird's detention as an enemy combatant," McClellan said. "He exhibited hostile, potentially seditious behavior that could endanger the safety of the president or other government officials."
Officials report that Wattle became agitated shortly after he was led into the White House Rose Garden, where he broke loose from his handlers and began strutting about the grounds. Witnesses allege that Wattle, without warning or provocation, began to flap his flightless wings wildly and rush nearby White House staffers, ignoring orders to halt. Wattle also allegedly pecked Council of Economic Advisors Chairman Greg Mankiw on the left hand.
The president, who was being debriefed on the ceremony by aides in the East Room when the incident began, was whisked by Secret Service agents to the safety of an underground bunker a half-mile below the White House.
After several minutes of chasing by various security officers, handlers, and gleeful schoolchildren, Wattle was subdued. The shackled and hooded bird was then escorted to an unmarked Secret Service vehicle and driven from the White House.
Fanny Clune, a spokeswoman from the farm where Wattle was bred, could not account for the turkey's violent outburst. She explained that the National Turkey Federation is careful to screen national Thanksgiving turkey candidates, adding that the 1-year-old gobbler was hand-fed from birth, and had never expressed any violent sentiments against the American government.
"I have no idea why Cousin Wattle snapped like that," Clune said. "He's accustomed to human contact. We know of no loyalty Wattle may have to any turkey nationalist movement. His closest contacts are a 9-year-old member of the farm family that raised him and a duck named Flap."
McClellan said Cousin Wattle continues to resist confinement and refuses to cooperate with his interrogators.
"We are doing everything we can to ensure that Cousin Wattle is given fair treatment," McClellan said. "Unfortunately, it has proven difficult to find appropriate translators."
So far, animal-rights attorneys have been denied access to the offshore prison farm where Wattle is being held until a formal arraignment can be arranged.
"This is an outrage," lawyer Jeffrey Alexander said. "Cousin Wattle has not been allowed to see relatives or lawyers, nor has he been formally charged with a crime. The pervasive anti-turkey sentiment in this country is the only reason this shocking deprivation of basic freedoms is allowed to continue. If a Labrador retriever were being treated this way, the outcry would be deafening."
Representatives from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals visited Cousin Wattle early Tuesday and roundly criticized the conditions of the turkey's confinement.
"Cousin Wattle is being detained alone in a cold, dirt-floor pen with nothing to eat but raw corn," ASPCA officer Peter Woljak said. "He was leaning against the chain-link wall of the pen, literally sitting in his own feces. He appeared despondent, and his face and neck bore evidence that he had been bound and gagged."
McClellan dismissed ASPCA complaints, saying that Wattle had been gagged and blindfolded only because he had resisted confinement, and that the state of his pen was fully compliant with standards set by the National 4-H Convention of 1982.
"The real horror Wattle faces isn't inadequate prison conditions anyway," Woljak said. "It's the threat of infinite confinement, without trial or access to legal representation. The government has all but said it intends to hold the turkey until he talks."
Public reaction to the bird's detention has been mixed.
"There's no proof that Cousin Wattle intended to attack the president," an Ohio-based caller to The Randi Rhodes Show said. "He's a free-range domestic bird, not some wild turkey. Something like this makes you stop and wonder what other appalling things are going on. There sure doesn't seem to be a whole lot of pigeon activity on the White House lawn, if you follow me."
A caller on The Michael Savage Show was less forgiving.
"I remember a time when the National Thanksgiving Turkey would never even think of disrespecting the commander-in-chief," a man identifying himself as "Larry from North Carolina" said. "Those mealy-mouthed liberals who complain about Cousin Wattle's treatment should be happy he wasn't shot on sight. They claim he's all by himself feeling lonely in that pen of his. Well, I know my family would be happy to keep Cousin Wattle company this Thanksgiving. We'd serve him on a silver platter!"
Refusing to offer an opinion on the confined turkey's innocence or guilt, National Turkey Federation spokesperson Gina Webster made a plea for Americans to "find common ground during the holiday."
"While we may disagree about the handling of Cousin Wattle's case, most of us can at least agree on one thing," Webster said. "Turkey is incredibly delicious!"
While Wattle remains in custody awaiting a presidential pardon that may never come, the bird's ceremonial duties will be undertaken by his designated alternate, Miss Prissy, a turkey hen whose political beliefs are unknown at this time.