The anonymous letter written on State Department stationery spilled out of fax machines in five Republican Senate offices on Feb. 15. Stamped URGENT, it suggested that nothing short of an enemy plot was brewing inside the Executive Branch. Clinton holdovers, it warned, were "seeking to box the Bush Administration into a corner where it will have to choose between a bad deal and international embarrassment. Please do not let this happen." The Senators took the threat seriously. Nebraska's Chuck Hagel fired a memo to Deputy Secretary of State-designate Richard Armitage: "We need to get control of this."
Get control they did. Last week, when four of those Senators received another letter on the subject, it was signed by George W. Bush, who assured them that he had quashed the plot. But the plan he killed--a proposal to slow the pace of global warming by limiting the amount of carbon dioxide that electrical utilities release into the atmosphere--was no rogue operation by an underground cell of Al Gore sympathizers. It was a campaign promise made last fall by Bush, one designed to persuade environmentally conscious swing voters that he was greener than Gore.
Industry hadn't taken that pledge seriously. But last month similar language made it into the President's budget proposal--and more was rumored to be in his big speech to Congress, at least until lobbyists made sure it wouldn't happen. EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman touted the carbon-dioxide limits on CNN and assured other countries that Bush was serious about them. Behind the scenes, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill argued for an even bigger push, telling Bush in a Feb. 27 memo that the main problem with the as-yet-unratified global-warming treaty was that it didn't go far enough. While O'Neill stopped short of endorsing a cap on carbon-dioxide emissions, Bush aides were worried about green creep.
And so opponents of emissions controls--including business associations and industries that contributed millions to Bush's presidential race--decided late last month that the time had come to reverse the trend. Their campaign, which culminated in Bush's turnabout letter to Hagel and the others, had all the finesse of a smackdown, leaving O'Neill embarrassed and Whitman downright humiliated. Bush consoled her with an invitation to Camp David last weekend, shortly after she issued a wan statement declaring her own about-face on the issue. But European leaders who had accepted her assurances were furious, sources tell TIME. British Ambassador Christopher Meyer complained to Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis Libby. And Swedish Prime Minister Goeran Persson, in a call with Bush on Friday, wanted to know whether he was going to take global warming seriously.