FORT HOOD, Texas | DMN — The Army announced Tuesday that a sergeant first class assigned to an assault prevention program at Fort Hood, Texas, is under investigation for sexual assault. The soldier, who was not named in an Army statement, has been suspended from all duties. Specifically, the soldier is under investigation for “pandering, abusive sexual contact, assault and maltreatment of subordinates,” the statement said. Special agents from the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command are conducting the probe. No charges have been filed. “This is so contrary to everything upon which the Army was built,” Secretary of the Army John McHugh said during testimony before the House Appropriations Committee Defense subcommittee, according to the statement. “To see this kind of activity happening in our ranks is really heart-wrenching and sickening.”
McHugh spoke generally about sex abuse crimes in the military. “As I said to our new Brigadier General Corps when I spoke to them about two weeks ago, ‘You can do everything from this point forward in your military career perfectly, but if you fail on this, you have failed the Army’,” he reportedly said. The solider was assigned as a Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program coordinator when the allegations surfaced. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was made aware of the case earlier Tuesday. He met with McHugh and directed him to ensure that “all of those who might be involved are dealt with appropriately,” according to Pentagon spokesman George Little.
“I cannot convey strongly enough his frustration, anger and disappointment over these troubling allegations and the breakdown in discipline and standards they imply,” Little said about his boss. “To address the broader concerns that have arisen out of these allegations and other recent events, Secretary Hagel is directing all the services to retrain, recredential, and rescreen all sexual assault prevention and response personnel and military recruiters,” he said. According to a Pentagon report released last week, the number of service members anonymously reporting a sexual assault grew by more than 30% in the past two years.
The Defense Department estimated that more than 26,000 troops experienced an episode of “unwanted sexual contact,” a huge jump from 19,300 in the 2010 report. The actual number of sexual crimes reported in fiscal year 2012 was 3,374, a 6% increase over the previous year, the report said. Military officials worry that many victims don’t come forward because they fear retaliation. But the numbers might indicate that more victims are willing to report crimes than in the past. “I am outraged and disgusted by the reports out of Fort Hood today,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, calling them the “latest chapter in a long, sordid history of sexual abuse” in the military.
The California Republican has a granddaughter in the Army. “I see no meaningful distinction between complacency or complicity in the military’s latest failure to uphold their own standards of conduct. Nor do I see a distinction between the service member who orchestrated this offense and the chain of command that was either oblivious to or tolerant of criminal behavior,” he said. The allegations of abuse come soon after an Air Force officer was charged with sexual battery stemming from an incident in Northern Virginia. Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, a 1994 graduate of the Air Force Academy who served tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, was arrested this month and accused of grabbing a woman’s buttocks and breasts in a parking lot in Arlington County not far from the Pentagon. He had been in charge of a military unit aimed at preventing sexual assault.
Krusinski, who has since been removed from that position, made an initial court appearance last week. He did not enter a plea. “To say this report is disturbing would be a gross understatement. For the second time in a week, we are seeing someone who is supposed to be preventing sexual assault being investigated for committing that very act,” said U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York. She plans to unveil legislation this week that would remove chain of command influence from the prosecution of such offenses. “We have the best and the brightest serving in our military. We have the greatest military in the world. And we ask everything of them. We ask them to even die for their country. We should not be allowing them to be subject to sexual assault and rape,” said Gillibrand.
Texas lawmakers might be starting to get the message that you cannot incarcerate your way out of crime problems. If they are getting the message in Austin at the legislature, it will represent a major shift in policy. For decades, Texans have been sold a line of crap that being tough on crime means draconian mandatory minimums for sentencing in drug crimes and a build out of the worlds largest prison system. Texas has 112 prisons scattered across the Lone Star and plenty of felony class crimes to keep them filled but some attitudes are beginning to change.
From Texas Monthly Magazine: “My name is Michael McSpadden, judge of the 209th District Court. The court is going to read the charge against you. Please do not respond in any way…” Thus began a series of ritual playlets between one of the longest-serving judges in Harris County’s criminal courts and a chain of accused men and women, most of them black, with their hands cuffed behind their backs. Typical of the county’s felony court dockets, charges that March morning included murder, aggravated assault, rape, robbery, burglary, indecency with a child—crimes worthy of significant punishment. But, as almost always, the charges against several defendants were for offenses a majority of the judges in Harris County’s 22 district courts do not believe should be a felony: possession of less than a gram of a controlled substance such as cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, or dozens of derivatives and synthetic analogs.
At an intermission in the sad drama, McSpadden invited me into his chambers to talk about his long-running campaign to encourage legislators to alter Texas law regarding small quantities of illicit drugs. A conservative Republican, McSpadden softly but earnestly explained his long disquiet over the current drug laws. “These people should not be branded as felons for a small amount of cocaine,” he said. “We need a recalibration. I had thought that all along, but then we started hearing it from jurors, especially from the grand juries, who see these cases coming before them every single day—a guy walking on the wrong side of the road, getting stopped, then frisked, then getting pulled in and getting a felony for having residue on a pipe. The jury comes back and says, ‘Don’t they have other crimes to deal with? We watch crime—violent crime—the first ten minutes of every single news report, and we concentrate on this?’”
McSpadden and his allies believe the crime should be dropped down to a misdemeanor, in part because it allows law enforcement to pursue higher-level criminals. “In a recent case we tried,” he said, “they had eleven officers on surveillance for a delivery of less than one gram of cocaine—a $20 rock of crack. What a waste. But it’s a collar, and they can use it as a felony arrest to go to their higher-ups.” In January, at the start of the current legislative session, McSpadden sent a letter to state senator John Whitmire, the Houston Democrat who is the longtime chair of the Senate Criminal Justice committee, and to other key legislators, detailing the enormous expense of jail and prison overcrowding and the “revolving door” of dealing with drug addicts. McSpadden called for dropping the penalties for delivery or possession of small amounts of drugs from a felony to a Class A misdemeanor, with reduced time in a lockup, the possibility of probation (now called “community supervision’), and mandatory participation in a drug treatment program. A bolder option he mentioned would reduce the offense to a Class C misdemeanor, with the only punishment being a fine of up to $500. Such changes, he wrote, “would result in enormous savings to taxpayers by freeing up substantial numbers of jail beds and court resources that could be used to address more serious crimes.” These changes “would be fair, just, and have an immediate positive effect on our overtaxed criminal justice system.”
The idea to revise the penalties for such crimes has been around, but it has been toxic to some officeholders who have embraced it. In January 2010, mid-way through her term, then-Harris County district attorney Pat Lykos announced that her office would no longer prosecute so-called trace cases, as they are called. To help explain her reasoning, at an appearance at Rice University’s Baker Institute, she held up a package of Splenda, which weighs approximately one gram. She and her predecessors had been prosecuting people for less than 1/100th of that amount. “Sometimes they had a little flake extruding from their nose, a little flake [on a shirt collar] or on a crack pipe. We had thousands of cases clogging up our dockets, and that meant thousands of people overcrowding the jail.” Beyond that, she argued that the policy helped police make better use of their time “When someone is arrested for a trace case, that officer is out of service for two to three hours,” she said. “That neighborhood is unprotected for two to three hours. Officers are getting time-and-a-half to fight the drug war, and this is their drug-war arrest, time-and-a-half to go to court. So the union bosses are not happy with me.”
After Lykos’s change in policy, McSpadden and his fellow judges noticed the effects: trace cases dropped from nearly 30 percent to approximately 10 percent of the dockets. But the police were less enthusiastic. When Lykos filed for re-election in November 201l, the Houston Police Officers’ Union held a press conference to express their disapproval of the DA’s policy and kept up a steady drumbeat against her. Not only was she flouting the law, they charged she was putting the public at risk by letting crack addicts run free to commit other crimes.
Lykos insisted she had no quarrel with police department leadership. “We met with the command staff for the Houston Police Department, the Sheriff’s office, the Harris County Criminal Justice Council, and laid it all out. There were no objections.” HPD Executive Assistant Chief and panel member Michael Dirden confirmed Lykos’s account: “I want to make it clear that the disconnect is not between the District Attorney and the police department. It is the union that is pushing the issue of accepting charges on every case. Those of us in the administration work very closely with the district attorney’s office on a daily basis. We are in one accord on that particular issue, in terms of how it relates to our usage of police resources and also in our understanding of the concepts of fundamental fairness.”
Still, in the Republican primary two months later, Lykos was defeated by former prosecutor and judge Mike Anderson, who got 63 percent of the vote and went on to win the post in November. He received and prominently touted a rousing endorsement by the Houston Police Officers Union and vowed that his office would reinstitute the policy of prosecuting trace cases. He has kept that promise, and trace cases are once again filling the Harris County District Courts. Judge McSpadden noted that on a recent Monday his docket had fifteen cases for less than a gram, nearly a third of the cases for that day. Chuck Hinton, who has defended indigent clients in McSpadden’s court for twenty years, said, “It is so time-consuming, comparatively speaking, to deal with these minor felonies. You still have to read the police report, you have to talk to your client, tell them what the state can offer. Relative to the more serious stuff, it just eats up a lot of time that we don’t really have.”
McSpadden is reluctant to criticize Anderson. “Mike and I are really good friends,” he said. “I have more respect for him than just about anybody down here, but he is taking the line that ‘It’s on the books and we will follow the law.’ I respect that, but I wish he would show some discretion. But what has to be done is to change the law so that nobody has to worry about discretion or stepping over the boundary. We’re trying to change it in the Legislature, to take the heat off Mike.”
Despite years of seeing his calls for change go unheeded, McSpadden has not been disheartened. He noted that response to his biennial letter had never been better, perhaps reflecting growing public opinion that the War on Drugs, with its emphasis on incarceration, has been a failure. “This is the first time we have had immediate response from more than just one person expressing interest. This time we heard from [representatives] Harold Dutton, Senfronia Thompson, Sylvester Turner, Hubert Vo, and Sarah Davis, as well as [senators] John Whitmire, Rodney Ellis, and two or three more. Senator Ellis’s aide has asked me and several other judges to come to Austin to testify.”
In the past, legislators have found it difficult to act on these issues, or even to work up the will to try, but in the current session, encouraging signs have begun to come from the Capitol. The Legislative Budget Board called on the 83rd Legislature to establish a sentencing commission to conduct a comprehensive and ongoing review of Texas sentencing laws, “to align penalties with offenses” and “modernize laws.” It noted that increased length of sentences over twenty years had cost Texas taxpayers an extra $602 million just for prisoners released in 2009. Longer sentences, longer probation terms, more prison admissions, and low parole approval rates had boosted the Texas corrections budget from four percent of General Revenue Funds in the late eighties to eight percent in 2012; other states had been able to achieve significant savings “through policies that change sentencing patterns, re-categorize certain low-level offenses and limit prison admissions to only dangerous and violent offenders.…” The LBB specifically recommended that “Texas consider reforming drug sentencing laws to continue to emphasize prison diversion treatment programs for certain low-level possession offenders.” It also commended a general shift from “Tough on Crime” policies to “Smart on Crime” approaches.
Reform gained further momentum in mid-January when the heavyweight Texas Association of Business, which lobbies the Lege on behalf of some of the state’s largest companies, told the Austin American-Statesman that it intended to focus its efforts during the 2013 session on issues of criminal justice. TAB president Bill Hammond said the organization was particularly interested in expanding rehabilitation and community-based corrections programs, putting low-level offenders in local treatment programs rather than sending them to prison (“We’re sending too many people to the slammer”), reducing penalties for possession of small amounts of drugs, and lowering barriers to meaningful employment for people released from jail or prison.
With orders from the LBB and political cover from TAB, the infantry in the trenches is a coalition force led by the right-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) and its left-leaning counterpart, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJC). During the current session, they are comrades in arms rather than competing forces. TPPF’s Center for Effective Justice is led by Marc Levin, whose articles, speeches, reports, and PowerPoint Presentations on the TPPF website stress the superiority of probation over incarceration, as measured by economy, efficacy, and public safety. He is a strong advocate for rigorous treatment that keeps offenders in the community rather than in prison, including drug courts that comprise some combination of treatment, counseling, employment, and education, and whose graduates have a markedly lower recidivism rate than offenders who receive no treatment and have a better chance to reintegrate into society as productive citizens.
TCJC, headed by Dr. Ana Yáñez-Correa, largely agrees with TPPF on these issues, but places greater emphasis on the growing recognition by medical and public health authorities that drug addiction is a diagnosable chronic brain disease that physically alters the chemistry of the brain and “leads to compulsive cravings and limits the ability of an individual to make voluntary decisions.” Given that understanding, TCJC stresses that, absent other forms of criminal behavior, drug addicts should be treated as people with an illness rather than as criminals, and be afforded increased and improved treatment resources.
A January TCJC report contained the eye-catching information that “About 90 percent of all drug-related arrests in Texas are for possession of a controlled substance, not delivery or distribution” and that such individuals who entered Texas lockups in FY 2011 cost Texas taxpayers $725,000 every day of the year. As a result, Houston Rep. Sylvester Turner filed HB 2044, which would lower possession of less than a gram of any of the major controlled substances from a felony to a Class A misdemeanor, with a requirement that a judge sentence first-time offenders to community supervision and mandatory drug treatment in an approved program. The fiscal note on the bill estimates that diverting first offenders from prison or state jail would save taxpayers $321 million over five years.
In a hearing before the House Criminal Jurisprudence committee Levin commended HB 2044’s emphasis on treatment. In dealing with people who have not committed a violent or property crime, he explained, “Incapacitation is not really the goal. We should focus instead on curing their addiction.” He added that many low-level drug offenders are not truly chemically dependent—just letting them know they will be subject to random drug tests will be enough to keep many of them clean. Rebecca Bernhardt of the Texas Defender Service concurred, citing a massive annual government survey of drug use and abuse that shows that “the vast majority of people who have tried cocaine or other drugs in their lifetime do not become addicts. They do not develop a substance abuse problem. We’d like to see a more nuanced perception [that would] help people stop partying and get it together.”
Still, HB 2044 has not received a vote and will likely remain in “left pending in committee” limbo, but the committee did send two significant drug bills on to the Calendars Committee, which will decide whether they will go to the House floor for open debate. Rep. Harold Dutton’s HB 184 would reduce penalties for use of marijuana and synthetic cannabinoids (perhaps a portent, the hearing began at almost exactly 4:20, the traditional time for an afternoon toke), and Rep. Senfronia Thompson’s HB 2914 would set 0.02 grams as the minimum amount of a controlled substance necessary to cause an arrest; though the amount involved is still tiny, the bill would prevent most trace-case prosecutions.
Compared to measures enacted by other states, most notably Colorado and Washington in 2012, the aim of HB 184 is quite modest—changing possession of less than an ounce of marijuana or a synthetic cannabinoid from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor. This would remove the threat of incarceration but still require offenders to take a drug abuse and awareness class. For more than two hours, a stream of supporters pieced together a compelling mosaic of arguments for ending the prohibition of marijuana. Bryan-College Station Judge John Delaney reported that probation officers in Brazos County had told him that passage of the bill, with its removal of incarceration and therefore of probation, would devastate their offices. Why? Because almost half of the county’s misdemeanor probationers have been convicted of possession of less than two ounces of marijuana. “We live off our under-two-ounce misdemeanor guys. They pay the rent.”
Although HB 184 does not address the use of marijuana for medical purposes, Vincent Lopez told of how pain and other symptoms of his multiple sclerosis had been eased by marijuana, whose use his doctor approved. Army retiree David Bass told of thousands of veterans disabled by injuries and PTSD who face incarceration and thousands of dollars in fines and legal costs because they have turned to marijuana as a safe and effective alternative to the dangerous, debilitating, and highly addictive pharmaceutical pain medications provided by the VA. Joe Ptak added that both Israel and Canada provide or help veterans obtain marijuana to deal with military-related illnesses. Dr. Neeraj Shah, a physician at Austin’s Seton Hospital, gave a long, sometimes disjointed but powerful account of his evolution from adamant opposition to marijuana to extensive scientific research that convinced him that marijuana is exceptionally safe, with no known lethal dose and far fewer risks than many widely prescribed pain relievers and sleeping pills, which now cause more deaths than car accidents.
Significantly, no one testified against the bill. Representative Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler) acknowledged he was struggling with the bill, but conceded he wanted “to keep kids from spending any time in jail for something like this—to mix with the criminal elements, where they will go in with an associate’s degree and come out with a Ph.D. in crime.” Woodlands Representative Steve Toth, a member of the tea party, raised a crucial point: “The question is what kind of support would we have back home to get this done. That’s what it’s going to come down to. So I’m thankful we’re having this discussion. And I really appreciate Representative Dutton’s bringing this bill to us so we can struggle with this.” These were not empty words. Schaefer and Toth were part of the 6-3 majority that sent HB 184 to the Calendars Committee.
As for Thompson’s HB 2914, it is a true trace-case bill, setting the minimum qualifying for a state jail felony charge as “a usable quantity that is larger than 0.02 of a gram.” She provided copies of Judge McSpadden’s letter to the committee, noting that “He is not soft on crime, but he has seen that there is a necessity for us to be able to take this kind of action.” In laying out her bills, Thompson noted that 16,262 individuals had been sentenced to state jail for drug convictions in 2011-2012 and that 88 percent of those had been convicted for possession of less than a gram without attempt to deal or distribute. A striking 31 percent of the state’s total state jail population, and 42 percent of the nearly 44,000 individuals newly admitted to state jail or prison in 2011-12 were incarcerated for less than a gram.
TCJC policy analyst Caitlin Dunklee explained in oral and written testimony that drug offenders tend to have more expensive needs than offenders in other classifications. Individuals locked up for possession of less than a gram at the end of August 2012 and filling beds in the medical or psychiatric units or in the intellectually disabled program had already cost the state more than $6 million over the span of their incarceration. In sharp contrast, community supervision costs the state only $1.38 per person per day and gets better results.
Speaking in support of the trace-case bill, Levin said prosecutors in several counties agreed it is difficult to be sure that an amount smaller than 2/100ths is actually an illicit drug. He quoted Judge McSpadden as saying, “I don’t want somebody saddled with a felony conviction for what is truly a residue amount. That changes their life forever, getting a job, going to school, and so forth.” He also quoted DA Mike Anderson as having said, “Look, I feel I have an obligation to prosecute cases to the fullest extent of the law as it stands, but I’m not against the legislature’s changing the law.” Levin called that an understandable position, but noted that Harris County had experienced a 26 percent drop in violent crime and a 7 percent drop in property crime during the two years when Lykos’s policy was in place, so the contention that if we didn’t put those people in trace residue cases in jail for a long time they would be out committing crimes is dubious. During those two years, Levin said, the Harris County daily jail population was reduced by 400 inmates, at a savings of more than $10 million.
HB 2914 made it through the committee on a 5-3-1 vote. Rep. Thompson’s Legislative Director Brete Anderson thought the House might approve it, but was uncertain about its prospects in the Senate, where Houston Senator Rodney Ellis has filed a similar bill (SB 1291) that would likely be merged with it. Ellis has also filed SB 90, which would enable judges to place appropriate low-level felony drug offenders in a drug treatment program under community supervision, quite close to what Judge McSpadden favors. TCJC’s Yáñez-Correa characterized SB 90 as “one of the smartest bills that gets to the core of the problems in a therapeutic way.” An essentially identical bill (SB 1909), crafted with the counsel of legendary Dallas Drug Court Judge John Creuzot passed the Senate in 2007 but stalled in the House before the legislative session ended. When the Senate Criminal Justice Committee brought it up again in 2009, as SB 1118, former Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley testified against it, calling it the Drug Dealer Protection Act, essentially asserting that anyone possessing more than a gram of a controlled substance is likely to be a drug dealer.
In that hearing, Judge Creuzot cited extensive behavioral and economic research and said, “All the research shows that this approach reduces recidivism, reduces victimization, and costs less. That’s not a liberal position. It’s not a conservative position. It’s good public policy position.” Now retired from the bench, Creuzot retains his contempt for opposition to this bill. In a recent telephone conversation he said, “There is no factual basis for shooting it down. There is no principled, logical reason I know of to oppose that bill. It’s just obstruction for the sake of it.”
Public knowledge of John Bradley’s six-year effort to block the DNA testing that ultimately proved Michael Morton did not murder his wife has damaged Bradley’s reputation for probity and good judgment, but he is reported to have been working behind the scenes to keep SB 90 from getting a hearing—successful so far—and still calling it a Drug Dealer Protection Act. Dr. Yáñez-Correa called that “completely, 100 percent false. That is not at all applicable. But it has really resonated with Republicans, and that’s really sad. It’s a beautiful piece of legislation.” Even if the House bills succeed and SB 90 gets a hearing, Senate approval faces a formidable hurdle in Criminal Justice Committee Vice Chair Joan Huffman (R-Houston), a former Harris County prosecutor and District Judge who tends to takes a hard line on drug use.
Regardless of what happens in this session, drug policy reform is under way in Texas. An emerging bipartisan coalition is turning from reflexive “throw ‘em in the can and sit on the lid” responses to drug use and abuse to approaches grounded in solid evidence, tested in other locales, and combining fiscal responsibility with clearheaded compassion more concerned to restore troubled souls to full participation in a healthy society than to toss them out as toxic waste to further poison the social environment. Judge Michael McSpadden is by no means the only leader in this movement, but his dogged determination to hound political leaders until they pay attention has had a marked and growing impact, and he has no plans to slack off. Aware that the current legislative session is winding down and deadlines for bills fast approaching, he hopes lawmakers will move forward on legislation that has previously died a quiet death in committee. He summed up the strength of his commitment by saying, “Because it would be doing the right thing for the justice system and the defendants coming before me, I would regard putting these offenses in the proper category as my finest accomplishment in more than thirty years on the bench.”
If Ronald Reagan was the ‘Teflon’ President…then Barack Obama is the ‘Velcro’ President, although it has not always been this way. After a five year love affair with the President, Washington is turning on Obama and it’s not pretty. Republicans have waited five years for the moment to put the screws to Obama – and they have one-third of all congressional committees on the case now. Establishment Democrats, never big fans of this president to begin with, are starting to speak out. And reporters are tripping over themselves to condemn lies, bullying and shadiness in the Obama administration. Buy-in from all three D.C. stakeholders is an essential ingredient for a good old fashioned Washington pile-on — so get ready for bad stories and public scolding to pile-up.
Vernon Jordan, a close adviser to President Bill Clinton through his darkest days, told us: “It’s never all right if you’re the president. There is no smooth sailing. So now he has the turbulence, and this is the ultimate test of his leadership.” Jordan says Obama needs to do something dramatic on the IRS, and quick: “He needs to fire somebody. He needs action, not conversation.” Obama’s aloof mien and holier-than-thou rhetoric have left him with little reservoir of good will, even among Democrats. And the press, after years of being accused of being soft on Obama while being berated by West Wing aides on matters big and small, now has every incentive to be as ruthless as can be.
This White House’s instinctive petulance, arrogance and defensiveness have all worked together to isolate Obama at a time when he most needs a support system. “It feel like they don’t know what they’re here to do,” a former senior Obama administration official said. “When there’s no narrative, stuff like this consumes you.” Republican outrage is predictable, maybe even manageable. Democratic outrage is not. The dam of solid Democratic solidarity has collapsed, starting with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd’s weekend scolding of the White House over Benghazi, then gushing with the news the Justice Department had sucked-up an absurdly broad swath of Associated Press phone records.
Democrats are privately befuddled by the White House’s flat-footed handling of this P.R. and legal mess, blaming a combination of bad timing, hubris and communications ineptitude. The most charitable defense offered up on background is that Obama staffers are scandal virgins, unaccustomed to dealing with a rabid press. Chris Lehane, who spent so much time managing scandals in the 1990s that it inspired him to write a textbook on managing them, is among the contingent of Clinton-era scandal hands that thinks the Obama team has botched its second-term image. “One cannot get caught up with chasing news cycles in a crisis, as that is a prescription for putting out inaccurate information that does not withstand scrutiny or the test of time,” said Lehane, whose book is titled “Masters of Disaster.”
One Democrat who likes Obama and has been around town for many years said elected officials in his own party are no different than Republicans: they think the president is distant and unapproachable. “He has never taken the Democratic chairs up to Camp David to have a drink or to have a discussion,” the longtime Washingtonian said. “You gotta stroke people, and talk to them. It’s like courting: you have to send flowers and candy and have surprises. It’s a constant process. Now they’re saying, ‘He never talked to me in the good times.’ ” This makes it easier for Democrats like House Oversight Committee Elijah Cummings to pop off, like he did on CNN Tuesday, calling the IRS scandal “one of the most alarming things” he’s ever seen. Ouch.
None of this is going away. Top Republicans tell us the Benghazi investigations will last at least months, and probably until the midterms of 2014 and beyond. Same for the IRS scandal – and new scrutiny of how the Obama White House clamps down on its critics. Republicans are also working up plans to use the backdrop of government incompetence and over-reach to try to further undermine implementation of the new health care law. This is a dangerous — albeit familiar — place for a second-term president. Once the dogs are released, they bark, they bite, and it takes a very long time to calm them down. Bill Clinton got hit early and often, and George W. Bush never really recovered from it. No doubt, the hysteria cools. But, once you hit this point, it takes time, often lots of it.
The long-term danger is that the political system and the public start to view the president, his motives and ideas through a more skeptical lens. The short-term danger is the press races for new details, new scandals, new expressions of indignity with each passing day. Read Tuesday morning editorial pages of every paper for a taste of things to come. Or watch a re-run of Tuesday’s “Morning Joe,” where reporters made it sound like Obama is a modern day Nixon. ““And it goes beyond even the story,” National Journal’s Ron Fournier, who covered the Clinton and Bush scandals and was once the AP Washington bureau chief, said on the show. “One common thing with Benghazi and the IRS scandal, is we’re being misled every day. We were lied to on Benghazi, on the talking points behind Benghazi, for months. We were lied to by the IRS for months and now they’re sending a clear message to our sources: Don’t embarrass the administration or we’re coming after you.”
Obama’s strained relationship with the Washington press corp has always been an Achilles heel for the President. He has largely controlled the message by taking it directly to the American people via social media and carefully planned events as opposed to engaging reporters. He has given prized ‘cupcake’ interviews to Brian Williams, Barbara Walters and a plethora or favorable media types but herein lies the problem. Benghazi has blown up to the point that it is making the press look like culpable partners in the administrations lies. The I.R.S. debacle has crushed the President on the right and even those on the left are shaking their heads. Throw the AP phone records into the mix and you have a press corp beginning to look more like a school of Piranhas.
Obama will have to show leadership this time around. Nobody wants a one on one with someone in the middle of a shark feed and right now, the Obama administration is looking like everything it supposedly despises. Can they come out of this? Possibly but it will take real leadership and aggressively tackling these nasty circumstances that have landed squarely on the administration.
More than four dozen media organizations joined forces Tuesday to sharply rebuke the Justice Department for secretly gathering the phone records of Associated Press journalists, calling on the department to promptly return the records and disclose all other pending subpoenas related to the news media. “The scope of this action calls into question the very integrity of Department of Justice policies toward the press and its ability to balance, on its own, its police powers against the First Amendment rights of the news media and the public’s interest in reporting on all manner of government conduct,” the media outlets and associations, including The Washington Post, wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole.
The AP’s president, Gary B. Pruitt, said Monday that authorities obtained phone records of journalists working for the wire service, a move he characterized as a “massive and unprecedented intrusion.” The records were collected as part of an investigation into the disclosure of classified information about a failed al-Qaeda plot last year. Holder characterized the leak as “very, very serious” at a Tuesday news conference. The letter, which was sent by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit group that provides legal assistance to journalists at no cost, demands that the records be returned to the AP and that copies be destroyed. Failing that, the letter says, the records should at least be barred from further use.
Holder told reporters Tuesday that he had recused himself from investigating the leak. The FBI, he said, is looking into the leak under Cole’s supervision and under the direction of the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. Holder expressed confidence that all rules and regulations were followed in the probe. But the media coalition charged that his department appeared to run afoul of guidelines, including those requiring the scope of a subpoena to be as narrow as possible and, with exceptions, disclosure of the intent to pursue a subpoena.
“There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters,” Gary Pruitt, president and chief executive of The Associated Press, wrote in a letter of protest to Eric H. Holder Jr., the United States attorney general. Given that the government has brought six cases against people suspected of leaking classified information, under an administration that has set a record for the use of the Espionage Act, the Associated Press story adds to a growing atmosphere in which working reporters always need to worry that someone is looking over their shoulder while they type. As Scott Shane wrote in The New York Times in 2012, the investigative aggression creates “a distinct chill over press coverage of national security issues as agencies decline routine interview requests and refuse to provide background briefings.”
In the instance of The Associated Press, its leaders, who were notified of the investigation last Friday, worried that the information obtained would “provide a road map to A.P.’s newsgathering operations and disclose information about A.P.’s activities and operations.” Something about that has a familiar ring. “On Wall Street, anonymity is critically important,” a former senior trader at Bear Stearns told The New York Times. “Secrecy and the ability to cover one’s tracks is paramount. If Bloomberg reporters crossed that line, that’s an issue.” The clients who use Bloomberg terminals found out on Friday — the same day that the government sent The Associated Press notice that it had seized the phone records — that reporters at Bloomberg News had used terminals to find out when clients were signing in to the service. Besides Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and other big banks, who were among the concerned subscribers? The United States Treasury, the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
The hunted and the hunter, the hacked and the hacker, all of it seemed up for grabs. So at the same time The Associated Press, a nonprofit news organization owned by various media agencies, was responding to government intrusion into its affairs, another news service, Bloomberg, was responding to complaints from clients that it was peering into private matters. So many lines are being crossed in so many directions, it is tough to keep track of who are the victims and who are the perpetrators. There has always been a cat-and-mouse game between government and the media, between the coverers and the covered, but increased reliance on technology has weaponized something that used to take spycraft and shoe leather.
At Bloomberg, reporters could sit at their desks and use a keyboard function to see the last time an official of the Federal Reserve logged on. And the Justice Department obtained the records of The Associated Press from phone companies with no advance notice, giving it no chance to challenge the action. The absence of friction has led to a culture of transgression. Clearly, if it can be known, it will be known. In the past year, in addition to the recent revelations about Bloomberg and the Department of Justice, there have been overreaches by Google into homes and computers and a host of breaches into private data, by both foreign states and private hacks. And as a general fact of modern living, Facebook knows who we like, Foursquare knows where we are and Twitter knows what we think. How long before data gathering moves from the front of our face — Google Glass — to inside our head?
Some people are newly worried that Big Brother is coming and others say he is already here, having taken up residence in the cloud, where he snacks on Big Data as he pleases. It’s worth remembering that in scary movies (see “Minority Report”) about the coming informational Armageddon, it is not just government that is doing the lurking. Part of the reason the Obama administration, which promised to be the most transparent in history, has become such a spectral presence is that it is facing cybersecurity threats like none other in history. Journalists, aided by computers, can find and surround any source they like. Leaked information, which used to have to be photocopied or whispered, can be dumped by the terabyte into drop boxes by organizations like WikiLeaks and sent everywhere in an instant.
Bloomberg is a hybrid informational agency — a wired gatherer and distributor of information — that had $7.9 billion in revenue last year, mostly from its 315,000 subscriptions around the world. Its media division may play a small role in profits — it is viewed as a marketing tool for the terminals — but it has been hailed as a newsroom of the future with its open office plan and lack of architectural hierarchy. There is an instructive paradox in that arrangement. To be seen is also to be under surveillance. Every keystroke, every entrance and exit to the building, every note on every story, is there for the seeing when you work at Bloomberg. Putting a phone call into Bloomberg H.Q., as I did this morning, is akin to calling the C.I.A. “Don’t e-mail me, don’t call me here, please,” said an editor there I know.
So, we have discovered anew that government will do what it needs to in a vain, but chilling, attempt to plug leaks. But best to keep in mind that the most ubiquitous threats to our privacy do not originate in some secret government bunker. In the media, in the general public, in business realms, we are keeping an eye on ourselves. This entire ordeal is a dangerous slippery slope. As a journalist, it is not my job to engage in shady surveillance or draconian tactics to report a story. At the same time, once information is made public or information is revealed, there is an inherent obligation to report it. While I agree that some secrets definitely could be ‘national security’ issues, the blanket excuse that officials use is a bunch of crap and using subpoenas to plug your own leaky sink is shady as hell and sets a dangerous precedent.
Journalists take the obligation to report the news seriously. We have an obligation to protect national security, especially when peoples lives could be endangered but at the same time and often in the same breath, we have to weigh your right to know what your government is engaged in. That call can be one of the most difficult to make and it is rarely made on the fly but after much consideration and generally with advance notice. The Obama administration knew, in advance, about the AP story. At the time, there was no concern over the lives of U.S. operatives anywhere and, in fact, the AP held the story until safety could be ensured. If this was an isolated case or a mistake by government officials that would be one thing but this administration has gone to great lengths to control the message and gag the messenger.
WASHINGTON, D.C. | DMN — The US attorney general, Eric Holder, has defended the Obama administration’s controversial seizure of phone records from the Associated Press, saying that a story run by the news organization had posed a major security threat to the American public. Holder, speaking at a press conference at the Department of Justice on Tuesday, said an AP story published last year about an alleged Yemeni terrorist plot to blow up a US plane was the result of “a very, very serious leak” that justified “very aggressive action”.
The White House meanwhile attempted to portray Barack Obama as a strong supporter of press freedom on Tuesday, in the face of strong condemnation of the DOJ’s action. The blanket seizure amounted to one of the biggest challenges to the US media yet by the Obama administration, which has prosecuted more whistle blowers than the regime of any other recent incumbent of the White House. Both Republican and Democratic members of Congress lined up to condemn the move against the AP, as did civil rights organizations and groups representing journalists.
At the Department of Justice, Holder said the decision to seize the phone records was connected to a criminal investigation into the leak that led to the AP’s story about the Yemeni terror threat. “It put the American people at risk and that is not hyperbole,” Holder said. “Trying to determine who was responsible required very aggressive action.” The AP story was embarrassing for the Obama administration as it contradicted a White House claim that there had been no plots to coincide with the first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden. Holder said he had recused himself from the investigation into the leak last year and had left it to the deputy attorney general. Holder knew the people involved and was confident they had done things properly, abiding by department rules, he said.
The phone records were taken, without informing the AP, in April and May and related to calls made from the offices of the AP in New York, Washington and Hartford, Connecticut. In a move that angered members of Congress, it also tracked calls from the AP’s office in the House of Representatives press gallery. The AP described it as a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into news gathering operations. Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, insisted that Obama remained a strong believer in the first amendment that protects journalists’ rights, and supported reporters in their unfettered freedom to mount investigations. As a senator, Obama had supported a bill to protect journalists in pursuit of their work, Carney said.
But he added that Obama had to balance this freedom against a need to maintain secret and classified material. Carney said he could not answer any details about the seizure as it was a criminal matter and it would not be right for him to comment. Obama had only learned about it on Monday afternoon as he visited New York on a Democratic fundraising visit, Carney said. He referred questions about the details of the investigation to the Department of Justice. The scandal comes as the White House was fighting fires on a number of fronts. It is being pressed by Republicans over details of how the White House and State Department handled the aftermath of last year’s attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi that left four Americans dead. More damaging still is a fast-growing scandal over the Internal Revenue Service, whose officers targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.
It is shaping up as one of the worst weeks in office for Obama since he became president in January 2009. Asked about criticism that Obama could now be compared to Nixon and Watergate, Carney said: “People who make this kind of comparison need to check their history.” Civil rights organizations and groups representing journalists have condemned the move against the AP. The American Civil Liberties Union said the use of subpoenas for a broad swath of records has a chilling effect both on journalists and whistle blowers who want to reveal government wrongdoing. Laura Murphy, spokeswoman for the ACLU, said: “The attorney general must explain the Justice Department’s actions to the public so that we can make sure this kind of press intimidation does not happen again.”
Arnie Robbins, executive director of the American Society of News Editors, said: “It’s also troubling because it is consistent with perhaps the most aggressive administration ever against reporters doing their jobs – providing information that citizens need to know about our government.” Veteran Democratic senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, said in a statement: “I am very troubled by these allegations and want to hear the government’s explanation.”
CLEVELAND, Ohio | DMN — Two of the women imprisoned in a Cleveland house in conditions described as similar to a prisoner of war camp suffered from severe malnutrition and will require long-term therapy for injuries such as hearing loss and joint and muscle damage, two sources with direct knowledge said. The basement where the women were held had chains coming from the wall, and dog leashes attached to the ceiling, the sources said. The women were restrained with them and duct tape in “stress positions” for long periods that left them with bed sores and other injuries, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the investigation, who asked not to be identified.
Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight were in worse condition than Amanda Berry when they emerged from at least nine years in captivity at the home of Ariel Castro, accused of kidnapping and raping the women. Castro appeared to treat Berry better than the other two, the sources said. “There is a reason why you have only seen a picture of Amanda (Berry),” said one of the sources, referring to the condition of DeJesus and Knight. Berry, who broke down a door to freedom a week ago with the help of a neighbor, and then told police of the other women, was photographed smiling immediately after the dramatic rescue. Berry has a six-year-old daughter fathered by Castro in captivity. In contrast, DeJesus wore a hooded sweat-shirt covering her head when she first went home last week, and Knight was hospitalized for days, and has stayed out of public view.
The sources said DeJesus and Knight were gaunt and had closely cropped hair when they were freed. One of the sources, who has been in the house, said the basement had chains coming from the walls and “dog leashes attached to the ceiling.” Knight and DeJesus told police they spent extensive time in the basement. A second source corroborated the details. “One of the girls has difficulty moving her head around from being chained up,” said one of the sources. The second source identified DeJesus as the woman suffering this injury. “It was like they were POWs (prisoners of war). They had bed sores from being left in positions for extended lengths of time,” a source said.
All the bedroom doors in the house had padlocks on the outside and the rooms were spare with only a mattress on the floor. Their movement through the house was very restricted, the women have told authorities. “If he left for long periods of time he would sometimes duct tape-up the women over all parts of their faces, even their eyes, only leaving an opening so they could breathe. Then he would just rip it off pulling off skin and hair,” one of the sources said. A police report said Knight was starved for weeks at a time and punched in the stomach to induce several miscarriages. A county prosecutor intends to file fetal homicide charges against Castro in connection with the miscarriages.
The women, especially DeJesus and Knight, were now exhibiting signs of malnutrition as Castro used food as a means to torment them, one of the sources said. “He would bring food to one or two of the girls and made the others watch as they or he would eat in front of them,” the source said. Knight and DeJesus would sneak food to each other, this source said. Castro generally kept one woman upstairs and the other two – usually Knight and DeJesus – in the basement, the source said. Despite their ordeal, a Cleveland city council member stressed that the women are reveling in their freedom. “They are doing well, doing very well. They are thriving and enjoying their freedom,” City Councilman Brian Cummins said on Monday.
The sources asked to be anonymous because they were not authorized to speak on the record. They were discussing some of the details of the captivity because they felt tight information control had left the impression that authorities ignored calls and reports about Castro’s house that could have freed the women sooner. Cleveland Police Chief Michael McGrath on Monday issued a statement defending the police department’s policy of restricting information on the crimes. “The disclosure of sensitive information and details of these horrendous crimes only further victimize three young women. The criticism of law enforcement efforts is disheartening. The dissemination of misinformation erodes the critical relationship between law enforcement and community,” McGrath said.
WASHINGTON, D.C. | DMN — US officials were tight-lipped and analysts were bewildered Tuesday over the case of US junior diplomat Ryan Fogle, who was arrested in bizarre circumstances in Moscow and accused of trying to recruit an agent for the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). “We can confirm that an officer at the US embassy in Moscow was detained briefly and was released. We’ve seen the Russian Foreign Ministry announcements and we have no further comment,” State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said at the daily briefing for reporters. Fogle, a third secretary in the political department at the US embassy, was briefly detained the night of May 13 as he allegedly attempted to recruit an officer from one of Russia’s special services, according to Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB.
Russia quickly declared Fogle persona non grata and called for him to be deported. “Is he still in Russia?” a reporter asked at the State Department briefing in Washington. “Was he a spy?” asked another. Ventrell’s answer was succinct: “I really have no further information for you.” The State Department spokesman played down speculation the US diplomat’s arrest could put a damper on recent joint efforts by the United States and Russia to organize an international conference on Syria. “We have a very broad and deep relationship with the Russians across a whole host of issues and we will continue to work on our diplomacy with them directly,” he said.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the agency that oversees both the State Department and the CIA, did not respond to a request for comment, and the incident was not discussed at the daily White House media briefing. The US ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, was summoned to the foreign ministry in Moscow for a demarche, the diplomatic term for making a formal complaint. The Russian foreign ministry referred to Fogle as a “CIA agent” in a message about his arrest that was posted on Twitter. Experts, meanwhile, expressed bemusement at the case. “The fact that somebody was trying to recruit people who would be sources of information does not shock me,” Mac Destler, director of the international security and economic policy program at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, told RIA Novosti. “But the reported mode used is a little puzzling, even comical,” Destler said.
Fogle was found at the time of his arrest to be in possession of “special technical devices, written instructions for the Russian citizen being recruited, a large sum of cash and means of changing his appearance,” the FSB said. A video of his arrest appeared to show him wearing a wig under a baseball cap. “There have been, post-Cold War, a number of apprehensions on both sides of individuals accused of spying,” said Destler, who added he wondered “if the real news isn’t the arrest but the way certain authorities in Moscow have chosen to highlight it as opposed to getting rid of the person more quietly.” “Was this a presidential decision in Russia or was it someone lower down who wants to use this, and for what purposes? I don’t have the answers,” Destler said.
A US diplomat who was formerly posted in Moscow, and who asked not to be named, also voiced bewilderment about the incident, telling RIA Novosti: “It seems so highly amateurish as to be hard to believe.” The timing of the announcement of Fogle’s detention – the Russian authorities broke the news hours after the operation that ensnared the junior diplomat, just as the US ambassador was holding a live Twitter chat forum– also left Americans scratching their heads and seemed to have caught McFaul off-guard. Asked during his live forum on Twitter if he had anything to say about the arrest, McFaul tweeted a single word: “No.”
WASHINGTON, D.C. | DMN — The Internal Revenue Service deliberately targeted groups with “tea party” in their names and who were applying for federal tax exempt status, delaying processing of their applications and requesting unnecessary information, according to an advance copy of a report by the agency’s inspector general. The report found that for more than 18 months beginning in early 2010 the IRS developed and put in place a policy that used “inappropriate criteria” to identify potential political applications and then forwarded those applications to a team of specialists for review.
“The IRS used inappropriate criteria that identified for review Tea Party and other organizations applying for tax-exempt status based upon their names or policy positions instead of indications of potential political campaign intervention,” according to the report, obtained from a congressional source As a result, substantial delays occurred in processing certain applications, and unnecessary information was requested, according to the report. “Although the processing of some applications with potential significant political campaign intervention was started soon after receipt, no work was completed on the majority of these applications for 13 months,” the report said.
OBAMA ADMINISTRATION UNDER FIRE ON THREE FRONTS
THE SCANDAL: Documents show that in the midst of a re-election campaign, administration officials in the State Department had a hand in editing a set of CIA talking points about the 2012 terror attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The first draft from the CIA named the al-Qaeda-linked group Ansar al-Sharia as bearing some responsibility, but the final version contained no references to Islamic terrorism.
THE WHITE HOUSE LINE: Jay Carney has said the White House’s only role consisted of editing a single word for clarity, and that the ‘intelligence community’ was solely responsible.
THE KEY QUESTION: Obama must explain how much influence his political appointees had in the editing process. Did the CIA merely hold the pen while his key advisers dictated the edits?
Associated Press phone records
THE SCANDAL: Journalists are upset that the Department of Justice went to a judge to secretly obtain the office, home and mobile phone records of Associated Press journalists in at least three cities. Justice says it was trying to learn who leaked information to the AP about a classified CIA operation in Yemen which foiled a terror plot involving bombing a U.S.-bound jetliner.
THE WHITE HOUSE LINE: The administration insists that the White House was completely out of the loop, even as Attorney General Eric Holder – an Obama appointee – knew what was going on, and that the president himself found out only on Monday. Carney says that while Obama believes reporters should have ‘unfettered’ access to information, the government has the right to temper their First Amendment protections by protecting classified information. Carney also says that since the leaker may have been an administration official, it’s appropriate for the White House to be on the outside looking in.
THE KEY QUESTION: Obama must tell the press how it is that he was outside the circle of people who knew about what the Attorney General is calling one of the most serious criminal cases he has ever seen. Obama receives daily classified intelligence briefings. If he was truly ignorant of the DOJ’s investigation, he should explain why that’s a good thing.
IRS targeting of tea party groups and other conservative non-profits
THE SCANDAL: The Internal Revenue Service has admitted running a longstanding program that targeted right-wing groups – including those aligned with the politically successful tea party – for extra scrutiny, through delay tactics and intrusive mandatory questionnaires, when the organizations applied for tax-exempt status through the federal government. Some of those inquisitions involved demands for donor lists and the names of groups’ volunteers. The Washington Post has reported that senior IRS officials in Washington, D.C. knew about the program. And a draft of portions of a report from the IRS’s internal Office of Inspector General lays out a timeline showing who knew what, and when.
THE WHITE HOUSE LINE: Carney says the White House was completely unaware of the program, learned about it less than a month ago, and was taken completely by surprise. Obama has said he was outraged but cautioned that all the facts are not yet known, and that since the report has not been finalized, it’s inappropriate for the administration to comment or to assume that anyone in the government has done anything wrong.
THE KEY QUESTION: The president needs to convince the press that senior IRS officials in Washington who were informed about the politically partisan program never told the Treasury Secretary or anyone in the White House, and that they kept it from Obama’s political team during his re-election campaign. The administration also must provide an explanation for its inaction, despite the IRS’s quick admissions and apology. Senator, Marco Rubio – partially to bolster his credentials among conservatives who don’t like his immigration reform proposals – is openly calling for the top tax collectors’ heads to roll.
Of the 296 applications that were targeted for review as of December 17, 2012, 108 had been approved, 28 were withdrawn by the applicant and none had been denied. Of those applications still open for review, 160 cases were open from 206 days to more than three years. The White House struggled to deflect a barrage of questions today as it scrambled to contain three growing scandals lapping at Obama’s door. The unusually unflappable Obama press secretary Jay Carney faced a torrid grilling in his daily briefing and could only claim the White House was ignorant – or blame Republicans for the deep water the Obama administration has found itself in. The swell of criticism over the administration’s actions following the 2012 terror attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya has reached a new crescendo.
And at that same moment, news has emerged that the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative non-profit groups for extra scrutiny. Thirdly, the Justice Department secretly obtained the phone records of Associated Press reporters in an effort to trace a leak of classified information. ‘Is there a siege mentality back there in the West Wing?’ one reporter asked Tuesday. Carney’s reply ‘absolutely not’ – drawing eye rolls among cameramen and reporters in the White House briefing room. Carney maintained his line that the Benghazi question is politically motivated and fueled by House Speaker John Boehner, whom he accused of being ‘obsessed’ with the topic. The episode, he said Tuesday, is little more than a ‘clear political circus.’
Carney bristled at a question about whether it was fair to draw comparisons between the administration’s responses and those during the Richard Nixon presidency by bemoaning ‘the rapid politicization of everything’. ‘I can tell you that the people who make those kinds of comparisons need to check their history,’ Carney insisted, “because, you know, what we have here with one issue – Benghazi – is so clearly, as we’re learning more and more, a political sideshow. A deliberate effort to politicize a tragedy.” ‘If you look at the facts, and I think Benghazi is instructive on this, the real issue is that four Americans died,’ he said. The comment is reminiscent of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s testimony before a congressional panel that it made little difference what cause the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other U.S. personnel. ‘What difference, at this point, does it make?’ Clinton famously asked.
The Benghazi political melee had its beginnings in the Obama administration’s tale, after the bloodbath in Libya, that a spontaneous protest over an anti-Islam YouTube video had sparked the consulate’s destruction. Both Obama and Cinton referred to the video in public comments during the week following the attack, and UN Ambassador Susan Rice blamed it for the attack five separate times on Sunday talk shows. The truth, that the attack was a terrorist assault carried out by extremists including those from the al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar al-Sharia, emerged much later. More recently came evidence that a talking points memo prepared by the CIA for members of Congress went through a dozen edits, including some directed by the State Department, which removed all references to terrorism.
‘[W]e do know that Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qa’ida participated in the attack,’ the CIA wrote, in a line that was later removed. Despite the CIA’s certainty, Jay Carney claimed repeatedly on Friday that the final, sanitized talking points reflected the best knowledge of the intelligence community – ‘what the CIA thought it knew.’ But the IRS and AP tempests brought a refrain from Carney, which he cited in some form more than a half-dozen times during his 50-minute press availability, that the White House knew nothing at all and therefore wouldn’t comment. ‘I cannot, and he [Obama] cannot comment specifically on an ongoing criminal investigation,’ he would say repeatedly. ‘It would be wholly inappropriate.’
Yet as one journalist pointed out to the chagrined press secretary, Obama made repeated public comments about the shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin, who was shot and killed in 2011 in a case that sparked hostile race-based controversy. And the president inserted himself into the story of Henry Louis Gates, a Harvard professor who was allegedly targeted by police because of his race, and arrested for attempting to break into his own house. ‘The police acted stupidly,’ Obama told his global audience, prompting a much-discussed ‘beer summit’ – brokered by the president and Vice President Joe Biden at the White House – between Gates and the arresting officer.
Carney’s professed ignorance covered both new administration headaches. He first insisted that no White House personnel were notified about the IRS’s intense focus on challenging the tax-exempt status applications of conservative organizations. Moments later, he made a similar promise about the Justice Department investigation that prompted subpoenas for reporters’ phone records – including the calls made and received on journalists’ mobile phones, their home landlines, and at least one line in the House of Representatives press gallery. The AP reported in May 2012 on the CIA’s disruption of an al-Qaeda plot in the Gulf state of Yemen, which aimed to blow up a commercial aircraft bound for the United States. That operation was classified, and the Justice Department sought to determine who provided the information to reporters.
Only weeks before, the Obama administration – in mid-re-election swing – had assured the American public that no such attack had been planned or set into motion. ‘I have been a prosecutor since 1976,’ Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday, ‘and I have to say that this is among – if not the most serious, it is among the top two or three most serious leaks that I have ever seen.’ The entire case, Carney said, was ‘handled by the Justice Department independently.’ ‘We have no knowledge’ of the matter, he told reporters. ‘We are not involved in the White House with any decisions made about ongoing investigations.’ ‘It would be wholly inappropriate for me to have answers to those questions,’ he added, ‘and I don’t have them.’
Obama himself, he said, found out about the Associated Press-related subpoenas yesterday while watching TV. Carney reminded reporters that the president ‘believes that the press, as a rule, needs to have the ability to pursue investigative journalism,’ referring to that freedom as ‘unfettered.’ But the government, he added, must balance that ‘unfettered’ access with the need to protect classified information. ‘There is a balance that has to be struck here,’ Carney said, prompting one journalist to ask him how that balance could be compatible with an ‘unfettered’ press corps. ‘The president understands that a reporter needs to be shielded,’ he intoned. But with respect to the DOJ obtaining reporters’ phone records, he said: ‘I can tell you that I am not aware of anyone here knowing about it.’ ‘I am certainly not aware of, and am confident that, no one here was involved with this,’ Carney continued, referring further questions to the Justice Department in a moment which may soon be interpreted as a shifting of blame.
Politico reported Tuesday that AP reporters themselves were furious. ‘People are pretty mad — mad that government has not taken what we do seriously,’ one reporter told the inside-the-beltway broadsheet. ‘When the news broke yesterday … people were outraged and disgusted. No one was yelling and screaming, but it was like, ‘Are you kidding me!?’ Politico also reported Tuesday that ‘roughly one-third of House committees are engaged in investigating some aspect of the Obama administration.’ Holder, who leads the Justice Department as the nation’s highest-ranking law enforcement official, was having his own press conference across town at the same moment Carney held his announcing a criminal probe into the phone-records scandal, and also making clear that it was his deputy who had approved the plan to spy on reporters’ phone records.
Similarly, despite the IRS’s apparent admissions that it targeted right-wing groups – including some that identified with the once politically powerful Tea Party – for extra scrutiny, Carney crouched behind Obama’s hedging on Monday and said the White House was in the dark. And he, like Obama, suggested that the reporting to date might not be true. Carney questioned aloud ‘if the actions [of the IRS] were inadvertent, or not,’ and said that ‘at this point, we have to wait for the action of an independent investigator … before we can jump to conclusions about what happened.’ The president ‘made it clear,’ Carney argued without conceding any facts, ‘that if the reports about the activity of IRS personnel proved to be true, he would find them outrageous.’
Even the details the IRS has confirmed, Carney suggested, were not yet settled. Obama, he said, ‘had no tolerance for the targeting of specific groups,’ and referred to them as ‘conservative groups, if the reporting is true about this.’ Carney acknowledged the media reports about ‘a deliberate targeting of groups, inappropriately,’ but said action from the administration would only be expected ‘if it, in fact, took place.’ Citing Obama’s public comments about his ‘outrage’ over the IRS’s reported partisan activity, one reporter asked what might be ‘the consequences of his outrage.’ ‘We’ll see,’ Carney responded. But ‘instead of rushing to conclusions or perpetrating consequences,’ he insisted, the media must wait for the conclusions of a report from the IRS Office of Inspector General.
While the president, he said, ‘is concerned about every report he hears about this,’ Carney refused to commit the administration to a change in leadership at the IRS, even if the reports so far are proven true. He did, however, answer ‘yes’ to a reporter’s request that he state ‘categorically’ that no one in the White House knew about, or was involved with, targeting Tea Party groups ‘’We learn everything we know about this from your reports,’ Carney insisted. Yet amid new reporting from the Washington Post that senior IRS officials in Washington knew about the anti-conservative program in 2011, before the president’s re-election date, Carney punted a question about whether or not the White House should have been informed.
‘Notification is appropriate and routine’ only after the IG report is published, he insisted, adding that ‘there was no knowledge here’ before media outlets broke the story. Ultimately, Carney gave himself a breather by taking questions from reporters representing news outlets in Pakistan and Turkey, despite reporters’ interest in Benghazi, the IRS and the Associated Press. He had lengthy prepared statements addressing both questions and read aloud from them. And, perhaps for the first time in the Obama administration’s history with the press, audible sighs were heard among reporters in the packed briefing room.