Benghazi! Benghazi!

May 19th, 2013 · No Comments · Uncategorized

By Denise Tessier

Like a perfect storm, three stories piled upon one another day after day this past week, wrenching national media attention from bombings, sensational crime and gun laws — taking space that should be used to cover pressing issues, like student loan debt and the continuing paucity of jobs.  I’m sticking with my original headline of Benghazi! Benghazi! But it could just as easily have read Investigate! Investigate!

I’m talking, of course, about:

  • The continuing investigation into security at a U.S. outpost in Benghazi, Libya (and apparently, even more important to Republican Darrell Issa’s House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the administration’s talking points after its attack Sept. 11). A different Republican has called for a bipartisan Select Committee to further investigate.
  • The Internal Revenue Service’s alleged targeting of conservative non-profits for extra scrutiny (my use of the word “alleged” will be explained later in this post). The Justice Department has ordered an investigation and heads have rolled.
  • And last, but most significant, the revelation that the Justice Department seized telephone records at several offices of the Associated Press. “Calls grow for congressional investigation” (Albuquerque Journal subhead Wednesday, May 15).

Benghazi

Benghazi news kicked off the week after “disclosures” Friday (May 10) about State Department emails sent in the hours after the Sept. 11 attack last year. Saturday,  the Albuquerque Journal trumpeted those disclosures, running Associated Press’ story across the entire top width of the front page with a large, 60-point headline: “State Dept. changed Libya talking points.”

Its subhead: “Emails show Obama officials wanted terror group references deleted after Benghazi attack.”

Its news:

Political considerations influenced the talking points that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice used days after the deadly Sept. 11 assault in Benghazi, Libya, with State Department and other senior administration officials asking that references to terror groups and prior warnings be deleted, according to department emails. . . Numerous agencies had engaged in an email discussion about the talking points that would be provided to members of Congress and to Rice for their public comments.

At the risk of sounding biased in defense of the administration: Well, folks, this is the world we live in. Part of “crisis management” is going over every word of news releases, public statements and speeches, weighing how a phrase might be twisted by the other side.

In fact, an example was supplied by AP, which said one of then-State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland’s emails stated that to openly discuss early warnings about the dangers of Islamic extremists “could be abused by members of Congress to beat the State Department for not paying attention to central intelligence agency warnings.” As anyone who’s worked in public relations knows, this is not a revelation, but Nuland doing her job, which often simply involves stating the obvious. The part of this sentence the AP placed in quotes, by the way, was not a quote from a Nuland email, but rather the AP quoting “a congressional official who reviewed the 100 pages of emails.”

When Gregory Hicks, former deputy chief of the mission in Libya, testified in detail in a House committee hearing two days before, the Journal put that story on A4, not A1, perhaps because that hearing produced “no major revelation,” according to the story (“Diplomat provides a detailed Benghazi account”). It did report that Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz, “choked up” as he talked about the deaths before blasting Hillary Rodham Clinton for ducking blame for inadequate security. The story included the background that “a scathing independent review in December faulted the State Department in inadequate security at the mission,” but, in the Journal version anyway, there was no mention that the lack of security was due to House Republicans’ refusal to adequately fund it.

Two days after the Page One story, the Journal moved “Diplomat Absolves Clinton” inside (on A5), even though the diplomat doing the absolving was Thomas Pickering, the one “who penned” the highly critical report on security.

In sharp contrast, the story about politically motivated word changes was given extraordinary placement and space. From A1 it spilled over to A3 with 30 more inches of copy. This jump had the same headline wording as A1, but its size was increased to 72-point – a font usually reserved for the biggest of stories. In this case, it was a matter of page design – the mass of grey copy needed a large font for page balance and aesthetic reasons. But the placement prominence and size of these headlines was the design equivalent of “Benghazi! Benghazi!”

And despite the length – more than 50 inches total – there was no mention of the most obvious “political considerations” that influenced the email talking points — that the attacks occurred during the final two months of the presidential election campaign, and that GOP challenger Mitt Romney within hours had started a media story line (later proven false) that President Obama had failed to use the word “terror” in announcing the deaths of four Americans that day.

I’ve posted before about the Journal abetting the GOP in its continuing efforts to politicize the Libya event as a failing for Obama, pointing out that while unfolding stories generally were found on the inside pages of the Journal during last year’s investigations, the Journal put Libya back on the front page twice in the week running up to Election Day.

This week, the same day as the Page One Benghazi story, the Journal editorialized on it (“U.S. needs answers, not rhetoric, on Benghazi”) by taking both political parties to task for “seeking political benefit” from the attack. But the editorial leaned decidedly GOP by following that party’s wording and framing — coming up with “Whitewater and Lewinski” in providing examples of what kind of rhetoric parties should avoid. The editorial was also unfair in characterizing the reaction by Rodham Clinton and Democrats to the deadly attack as “who cares?”

Syndicated columnist Eugene Robinson  (who for some reason doesn’t get his own listing on the Journal’s web site) distilled the GOP’s continued calls for Benghazi investigations with this:

The only coherent purpose I can discern in all of this is to sully Clinton’s record as secretary of state in case she runs for president in 2016.

. . .Did Clinton’s State Department fail to provide adequate security for the U.S. consulate in Benghazi? In retrospect, obviously so. But the three diplomats who testified at the hearing gave no evidence that this failure sprang from anything other than the need to use limited resources as efficiently as possible.

House Republicans who voted to cut funding for State Department security should understand that their philosophy – small government is always better – has consequences. Bureaucrats have to make judgment calls. Sometimes they will be wrong.

So, House Republicans continue to investigate, thereby framing the story (and leaving their own role out of it), and the Journal plays along.

For comparison, The New York Times editorial, headlined: “The Republicans’ Benghazi Obsession,” said:

. . .Republicans have held numerous hearings and briefings on Benghazi and are threatening to hold even more. It is a level of interest they did not show during George W. Bush’s administration when there were 64 attacks on American diplomatic targets or in the years they spent cutting back diplomatic security budgets.

The real scandal is that serious follow-up on security in Libya is going unaddressed. Congress needs to make sure that State Department budgets for personnel and security improvements are sufficient and that security reforms are put in place as soon as possible.

The Senate should move quickly to confirm the ambassador, Deborah Jones, whose hearing was Tuesday.

Congress and the Obama administration also need to pay more attention to what’s happening in Libya in general. . . .

It will be interesting to see whether Jones, a Santa Fe resident, passes GOP muster.

The IRS ‘Scandal’

But if the GOP has had success in framing the Benghazi story, it has gone beyond success with what’s already being called “the IRS scandal,” provoking changes in leadership at the IRS. If the beating of the drum on Benghazi is to damage Hillary Clinton’s chances in 2016, what appears to be a GOP-orchestrated attack on the IRS very neatly raises questions about that agency just as “Obamacare” is about to take effect under its purview. And Utah’s Chaffetz is talking again about a possible Obama impeachment.

It all looks pretty bad for the IRS (and by association, the president) until one looks deeper. On Wednesday, before Obama had asked for the resignation of the acting IRS chief (who wasn’t even in that role when the alleged “Tea Party” discrimination was going on), the Bloomberg News had already reported this, which hasn’t been mentioned in any of the wire service stories carried in the Journal:

The Internal Revenue Service, under pressure after admitting it targeted anti-tax Tea Party groups for scrutiny in recent years, also had its eye on at least three Democratic-leaning organizations seeking nonprofit status.

One of those groups, Emerge America, saw its tax-exempt status denied, forcing it to disclose its donors and pay some taxes. None of the Republican groups have said their applications were rejected. (My emphasis added.)

Bloomberg added that:

. . . agency officials told lawmakers in a briefing yesterday that 471 groups received additional scrutiny, a total that indicates a crackdown on politically active nonprofit groups that extends beyond the Tea Party outfits.

Again, IRS agents were doing their jobs, made more difficult by the fact that the number of nonprofit applications had surged since the Citizens United Supreme Court decision.

What’s interesting, however, is that the Tea Party groups did not need to file applications – they could have just presented themselves as tax-exempt 501(c) 4 nonprofits by filing a 990 Form, according to Doug Shulman, the man who was IRS Commissioner when the applications rolled in from Tea Party and other groups. (Steven Miller, a 25-year federal employees who resigned this week from his job as acting commissioner, had only been in the position since November.)

From ABC News:

“First of all, I think it’s very important to emphasize that all of these organizations came in voluntarily. They did not need to engage the IRS in a back-and-forth,” Shulman told Congress (last year) when asked about delayed action on applications from conservative groups. “They could have held themselves out, filed a 990, and if we had seen an issue, we would have engaged, but otherwise we wouldn’t.”

During his testimony last year, Shulman explained further that:

The basic rules around 501 (c)(4) organizations are that they need to be primarily engaged in promoting the common good and general welfare of their community.

They can be involved in political and campaign activity, but it can’t be their primary purpose.

When people apply for 501 (c)(4) status, what we do is engage them in a number of questions about making sure that we understand their primary purpose around this and other sorts of engagement. And so what’s been happening has been the normal back-and-forth that happens with the IRS.

None of the alleged taxpayers– and obviously I can’t talk about individual taxpayers and I’m not involved in these — are in an examination process. They’re in an application process which they moved into voluntarily. There is absolutely no targeting. This is the kind of back-and-forth that happens when people apply for 501 (c)(4) status.

The Journal ran a prominent A1 story with photo about the Albuquerque Tea Party, which is still awaiting an answer from the IRS after submitting its application in 2009 (and answering questions since).

But the unasked question is why would all these Tea Party groups take the long way toward tax-exempt status? Were they coached to file applications by some national group? (ALEC perhaps?) It isn’t much of a leap to see that application paperwork from hundreds of Tea Party groups and others would cause a problem for the IRS, which, like most federal agencies is understaffed.

And why is it so odd that the IRS might scrutinize a group that calls itself a “Party,” which sounds like a political party, when the criteria is that the group not be primarily political?

And does it really rise to a level of scandal when, as thousands of applications are rolling in, agents look twice at those from a group called the Tea Party (“Taxed Enough Already”) or “American Patriots Against Government Excess?”  Remember Shulman’s basic rule: ”. . . they need to be primarily engaged in promoting the common good and general welfare of their community.”

We have ABC News quoting the president of the conservative 501 (c) 4 Citizens United as saying, however, that the IRS scandal is all a ploy of the “left”:

“I think that if you look at the IRS scandal, we see that the left will stop at nothing to thwart the conservative movement and try to freeze and really intimidate people from political speech,” said David Bossie, president of the conservative 501(c)4 Citizens United.

But as ABC added:

The irony is that the IRS’s dragnet, which was intended to catch groups that might have been too engaged in political activity, hasn’t stopped the largest of these groups from exerting influence in the political sphere.

Two of the most influential 501(c)4s, Crossroads GPS, founded by Republican political operative Karl Rove, and Priorities USA, which was founded by former aides to President Obama, have been operating as nonprofits without disclosing their donors even though the IRS has yet to rule on their applications for 501(c)4 status.

The Seizure of AP Records

In the midst of all this brouhaha, the most disturbing of the three stories spurring cries for investigation is this:  The Justice Department’s seizure of telephone records from offices of the Associated Press.

Granted, these are logs of calls, and not transcripts or recordings of the calls themselves. But they are indicative of the administration’s willingness to intrude on the news-gathering process and the lengths to which it will go to track down a government “leak.” As New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan wrote March 9 in quoting reporter Declan Walsh, leaks are the “unfiltered lifeblood of investigative journalism.” And, she wrote, this administration has “prosecuted  and punished leakers like never before.” From Sullivan’s piece:

Consider that the federal Espionage Act, passed in 1917, was used only three times in its first 92 years to prosecute government officials for press leaks. But the Obama administration, in the president’s first term alone, used it six times to go after leakers. Now some of them have gone to jail.

This is an administration that has cracked down on whistleblowers, made the taping of animal farm cruelty a crime, and persecuted Pvt. Bradley Manning and Aaron Schwartz.

As Times columnist Gail Collins put it in a conversation with David Brooks:

The AP record-poaching sprang from the mind-set that causes a president to lose all interest in the Bill of Rights once he’s responsible for protecting the nation’s security. I can understand that temptation, but the fact that even a former constitutional law professor is not immune is sort of disturbing.

This is a conversation we all should be having.

Real events affecting the nation’s future are being obfuscated by a political swirl of scandal and accusation, while worthy stories are shoved aside. (Example: Student loan interest rates will almost double to 6.8 percent if Congress does nothing by July 1. Bills by Sen. Elizabeth Warren and several others address this, but have received little, if any, local press.)

Apparently, however, we’ll have no shortage of investigations, cries of scandal, and diversions from the real congressional work that needs to be done – nor a shortage of media stories following these feints.

 

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