Apparently, Michael Moore has come down with a serious case of Bushitis.
With his new documentary, Sicko, poised for release later this month, the firebrand filmmaker is going on the offensive, claiming the White House is behind a government probe into Moore's trip to Cuba during the shooting of the documentary on the health-care crisis in America.
"This is a form of harassment. We are going to fight this and we are going to be very aggressive to find who is behind this," Moore said Monday in New York at a press conference, flanked by Harvey Weinstein, whose Weinstein Company is distributing the film.
To that end, the Oscar winner has hired David Boies, the attorney who represented Al Gore during the 2000 presidential recount.
In a letter to the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, OFAC for short, Boies argued that Moore has become a government target due to the harsh criticism he lobs against the Bush administration and for-profit health maintenance organizations in the movie.
"I am concerned that Mr. Moore has been selected for discriminatory treatment by your office," the attorney wrote Monday in response to a letter Dale Thompson, the chief of general investigations and field operations at the OFAC, addressed to Moore last month.
Boies pressed Thompson and the OFAC to reveal "the person or persons who participated in making the decision" in demanding the filmmaker account for what may have been an illegal trip to Cuba.
The attorney suggested the Treasury Department's queries amounted to retaliation for Moore's anti-Bush sentiments in Fahrenheit 9/11.
"This is an attempt by the government to discriminate against a journalist based on the content of Michael Moore's journalistic work," Boies told reporters.
Treasury announced it was probing the 53-year-old Michigan native for taking 10 ailing 9-11 rescue workers on a boat trip to U.S.-run Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Moore wanted to film a scene in which they tried to receive medical care at the Cuban outpost, ostensibly to show how terrorism suspects get better coverage than first responders who combed through the wreckage at Ground Zero.
After being denied entry to the base, Moore's group sought medical care within Cuba. That, according to the OFAC, allegedly violated a federal travel ban to the communist island as part of a U.S. trade embargo.
While Moore contends he filed the appropriate paperwork last fall with the department to travel to Cuba for a "journalistic endeavor" as permitted by U.S. law, Treasury disagreed. In a May dispatch, Thompson told Moore his agency never made a final ruling on whether Moore met the qualifications of a jounalist and asked for further details. Thompson threatened to slap Moore with criminal and/or civil penalties if he was found in breach.
After receiving the request, Moore fired back with an open letter to U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, accusing the Bush administration of "abusing the federal government for raw, crass political purposes." Moore also filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain documents pertaining to the investigation.
Boies' office purportedly called Monday's news conference after the New York Post reported that the Bush administration was also probing the 9-11 workers who accompanied Moore.
Meanwhile, Moore said that he has gone out of his way to prevent the government from undermining the launch of Sicko, which premiered to much acclaim at last month's Cannes Film Festival.
"We took measures a few weeks ago to place a master copy of this film in Canada so if they did take our negative we would have a duplicate negative of this film in Canada," he said. "I would've thought they would have waited until long after the film had been released to go after me."
Trailers for the flick are already playing up the Moore investigation, touting Sicko as the film "the medical industry and the U.S government don't want you to see."
Of course, there are some politicos that do want to see the film. Moore is planning to screen the film before an invitation-only audience of D.C. power players on June 20. Moore will attend with Boies and Weinstein.
As for suggestions that the director was milking the federal investigation for publicity?
"It's an odd thing to accuse us of [a publicity stunt]," he said. "We were going to open this movie quietly, and then to receive a letter like that."
A spokeswoman for the Treasury Department declined to comment, noting policy does not allow officials to discuss ongoing investigations.
Some industry groups, meanwhile, are talking. Health Care America, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health care advocacy organization takes issue with Moore's contention for a more socialized system. The company's executive director, Sarah Berk, says that while it welcomes the debate, his "proposal" is "not a serious solution."
"Government-run health care seems like a simple answer to fix the challenges facing our health care system, but government-run health-care systems around the world force patients onto long waiting lists, ration care, limited access to lifesaving medicine and often deny urgent treatments," Berk said.
Weinstein plans to launch Sicko in 600 to 1,000 theaters June 29 before expanding wider in subsequent weeks.