The interior secretary's chief of staff went on a trip to the Grand Canyon last week as the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico worsened, marking the second time in recent months that a top-level official has taken off in the middle of a major security incident.
Tom Strickland, who serves as chief of staff to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, had to cut his trip short as the administration upped its response to the spill. A Park Service helicopter was used to airlift him out of the canyon and bring him directly to the Gulf.
ABC News first reported that Strickland was on the trip with his wife and that it included a white-water rafting excursion.
But Interior Department spokeswoman Julie Rodriguez said Strickland, who is also the assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, is responsible in that role for overseeing Grand Canyon National Park and Colorado River management. She said the trip last week was an "official" visit.
"As part of his official duties as assistant secretary, he participated in an official trip to the Grand Canyon to investigate issues related to that park's management," she said in a written statement.
She said the review covered everything from beach erosion to safety to wilderness management and that Strickland was accompanied by National Park Service staff members. She noted that spouses on the trip "covered their own personal expenses."
Rodriguez said Strickland was in "constant contact by satellite phone" with headquarters and other operations in the Gulf but that he "cut short the trip" after two and a half days so he could be in the Gulf to "oversee and help accelerate" response efforts.
But the trip raised eyebrows, considering the administration is claiming it was on top of the spill since "day one" and sparing no effort in tackling the growing crisis. It comes after Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, took heat for going on a ski trip after the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit on Christmas Day.
"He's a part of the response," Karl Rove, former Bush White House adviser and a Fox News analyst, said Thursday of Strickland. "The secretary of the interior needs his right-hand guy there during this."
The Bush administration weathered heavy criticism for its handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The Obama administration has rejected any comparison between the federal responses to the two disasters.
One day after the April 20 oil rig explosion that triggered the leak, Salazar deployed his deputy secretary David Hayes to the Gulf Coast. Salazar next participated in a high-level meeting with President Obama and other officials to plan the response and over that weekend -- as oil leaks were first discovered -- the National Park Service began preparing for the potential landfall of a spill, according to the Interior Department.
But Strickland's trip came at a tense time. ABC News reported that Strickland left the Grand Canyon last Thursday, the day after the federal government increased its estimate on the amount of oil spilling from 1,000 to 5,000 barrels a day.