“Pulitzer Prize Creative Fiction”: Thomas Pickering Dissects Congressional Follies, Media Coverage, And ‘Cover-Up’ Charges
No doubt the degraded quality of congressional oversight astonishes Thomas Pickering, the distinguished American diplomat who oversaw the State Department’s Benghazi review board — although he tries not to say so too directly. For his demanding and difficult effort – only the most recent in a long history of public service under both Republican and Democratic administrations — Pickering has found himself under sustained attack by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the excitable partisan who chairs the House Government Reform Committee.
Last Friday, Issa subpoenaed Pickering to deliver a taped deposition to the committee behind closed doors, without offering a public chance to answer the charges already lodged by Republicans against the Accountability Review Board report authored by Pickering and retired admiral Mike Mullen.
Immediately prior to this latest skirmish, Pickering spoke with The National Memo about the ARB report, political maneuvering by the administration’s adversaries, and media coverage of the Benghazi “scandal.” Asked whether he had ever experienced or seen anything resembling Issa’s conduct, Pickering said, “No, I haven’t.…I suspect that on this particular issue, this guy [Issa] is driven by whatever will maximize his capability to be tough on the administration. This seems to be one effort he’s kind of landed on to make that happen. But I’m only guessing here,” he added.
Meanwhile, Pickering hasn’t noticed much attention being given on Capitol Hill to the extensive recommendations that he and Mullen made to improve security in dangerous posts around the world. “I can’t tell you whether anyone [in Congress] has sat down and examined them and wanted to have hearings on [the recommendations]” – instead of the notorious “talking points” developed by the White House last September. “So far I haven’t seen any evidence of that.”
For Pickering, the subpoena issued by Issa must be especially confusing. Ever since the Government Reform committee announced its planned hearings on Benghazi last winter, its leadership has repeatedly failed to establish a time when the review board chairman — perhaps the most important witness – could testify. Although at first Pickering says he thought they were “genuinely interested” in getting his testimony, he became “increasingly less inclined” to appear before the committee “as the thing became more politicized.”
Before the May 8 hearing, he made a final effort to arrange to testify publicly. But via the White House and the State Department, he learned that his presence was not desired. Before Issa issued his subpoena to Pickering on Friday, he and Mullen had sent a letter requesting an opportunity to testify publicly – and said that they are “not inclined to give testimony in a closed hearing before that [happens].”
Having listened to Issa and others take potshots at him, Mullen, and their report for several weeks, Pickering wants to rebut some of the misinformation they have propagated, for the record. He wants to address claims that the military “could have relieved or in fact changed the situation by sending men or equipment or both the night of the event” – and specifically assertions by Gregory Hicks, the former Deputy Chief of Mission in Libya, that four Special Forces soldiers should have been dispatched to Benghazi from Tripoli. Pickering says those four officers would have arrived in Benghazi too late to help and were needed in Tripoli anyway to treat the wounded, who were brought there after the Benghazi attack.
“The third question that has come up,” said Pickering, “is why we didn’t investigate the Secretary of State” and her deputies. The “simple and straightforward answer” is that “they played no role in the decision making which was relevant to the preparations for meeting the security crisis in Benghazi,” and the role they did play on the night of September 11 “was fairly clearly portrayed to us by other people who attended the meetings, and we had no questions about it. We thought that what they did made sense and fit exactly what should have been done.”
What Pickering may mention, if and when he does testify in public, is the role of Congress, which he considers primarily responsible for underfunding the protection of diplomatic posts abroad. Fortunately, legislative idiocy has not prevented the redirection of almost $1.5 billion in funds to improve security in dozens of posts, both physically and with additional security officers and Marine guards.
Aside from the weak oversight of Congress, Pickering also seems critical of the media coverage of Benghazi. In preparing to chair the Accountability Review Board, Pickering said, he “asked for, received, and read all of the press reporting that the State Department could find and put together for me, covering the events in Benghazi and the aftermath, from the initial attack right through to the day we submitted our report.”
He undertook this required reading because “I thought there would be useful ideas, leads, analyses that had to be taken into account. What I found in general was a very significant amount of wild, and I think fictionalized, made-up kind of information…
And in effect much of this alleged a kind of betrayal of those people, in one way or another, all of which I thought bordered on Pulitzer Prize creative fiction but didn’t bear any relationship to what we were able to determine, both from the documentary evidence, from the extensive film footage that we had an opportunity to review carefully, and of course the interviews we had with people who were on the spot.” Indeed, Pickering believes that the ARB report is “the best compilation I’ve seen of what actually took place.”
Pickering won’t comment on the “talking points” controversy, which wasn’t relevant to the ARB investigation. But he resents broader allegations by the Republicans and their allies in the media — in particular “the allegation that I would be engaged in a cover-up…I hope people feel that I’m a more honest and hopefully more dedicated public servant than that. “
“Our interest was to do everything we could to find out what happened,” Pickering said, “and then on the basis of that [investigation] to make as clear recommendations as we could to help the State Department and other agencies so that it wouldn’t happen again. That was our motive, that was the driver, and that’s where we went. Any effort to cover up would have been a betrayal… We did everything we could in terms of the national interest in saving future lives.” He believes it is vital to defend the credibility of the report and prevent it from being undermined. “That’s why I’m interested in talking to the American public now, because I think the report is a good report. And so far I haven’t heard anything that I believe we didn’t consider carefully.”
As for his critics, “I would hope they would read the report. If they have, maybe they need to read it again.” He laughed. “Both Mike Mullen and I believe that it’s important that we have this opportunity, either through Chairman Issa or some other committee, to deal with the people who have concerns about the report and tell them how we were thinking and why we reached the conclusions we did.”
By: Joe Conason, The National Memo, May 19, 2013
The controversy surrounding Justice Department leak investigations, and surveillance of journalists and phone logs, is clearly a serious matter. But is Karl Rove is the best person to be discussing this?
Appearing Monday on Fox News, Karl Rove attacked the Obama administration’s surveilling of Fox reporter James Rosen in a leak investigation as “chilling” and its rationale for doing so “beyond the pale.”
“We had to confront this question during the Bush administration,” he said. “There were leaks of classified information and in each and every instance, the focus was on the potential leak, not the reporter who received it.”
Rove defended the need to prosecute leaks but said the media shouldn’t be targeted. “This is really chilling,” he said.
If we remove Rove from the equation, I’m sympathetic to concerns about the chilling effect the leak investigations will have on journalists and their sources. It’s a point Rachel will probably explore on tonight’s show in more detail.
But if we keep Rove in the equation, there are some noteworthy angles to keep in mind. First, like Dave Roberts, I’m not sure how we arrived at the point at which Karl Rove can appear on national television to scrutinize White House controversies. The guy was, after all, responsible for more than his share of meaningful scandals.
Second, I’m even less sure how we arrived at the point at which Karl Rove can appear on national television to discuss and scrutinize White House controversies involving leaks of classified information. It was Rove, after all, who was very nearly indicted for his role in the White House outing an undercover CIA official as part of a larger political strategy.
Third, the focus during the Bush/Cheney era was “on the potential leak, not the reporter who received it”? I don’t mean to sound picky, but during Bush/Cheney era, the Justice Department “improperly gained access to reporters’ calling records as part of leak investigations.” Indeed, it happened quite a bit. One reporter went to jail to protect a White House source during a leak investigation, and another reporter very nearly met the same fate.
Does Rove not remember any of this?
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 20, 2013
Whether one thinks the demiscandals being howled about in Washington should or should not resonate more widely, they don’t.
According to a Gallup report released Thursday, “The amount of attention Americans are paying to the I.R.S. and the Benghazi situations is well below the average for news stories Gallup has tracked over the years.” (The Associated Press phone records case wasn’t mentioned.) Why might this be? I have a few theories:
CREDIBILITY People know that the Internal Revenue Service is the conservatives’ bogeyman. It’s the agency that collects the taxes that Republicans hate so much. Some Americans see taxes as, at worst, a necessary nuisance; Republicans see them as an absolute evil. The I.R.S. is the agency that collects the wealth from “us” for the government to redistribute to “them.” As National Journal pointed out Friday, “The agency also implements much of the country’s social policy through the tax code.” We all know that anything with “social” in its name activates the conservative gag reflex.
And on the Associated Press front, it just doesn’t ring true to have Republicans standing up as defenders of the “lame-stream media.” It’s like the person with the club feigning common cause with the baby seal. People just don’t buy it.
Furthermore, Republicans have exhibited a near-pathological need to say anything, no matter how outlandish, that would invalidate the Obama presidency. This has left them with little credibility now that there may be legitimate problems. This is the story of the political party that cried “Kenyan.”
COMPLEXITY Where is Benghazi? Seriously, folks, quickly point it out on a map. Thought so. Now, to the controversy: the talking points — what they said, and the machination of how that was altered, and whether Al Qaeda should have been immediately blamed, and whether the word “terror” should have had an “-ist” or an “-ism.” Seeking to find the killers of four dead Americans is honorable; endless testimony about a fussed-over script used to explain the tragedy is mind-numbing.
UNPOPULARITY It is clear that the Justice Department overreached on the Associated Press scandal and that its strong-arm tactics are likely to have a chilling effect. But Americans are not big fans of mass media. A November Gallup poll found that only a fourth of Americans rate the honesty and ethical standards of journalists highly. Even bankers ranked higher.
As for Tea Party groups that received extra scrutiny from the I.R.S., an Associated Press-GfK poll released last month found that fewer than a fourth of Americans say they support the group. The Tea Party may well be passé.
The policy issue is a different story, as The Washington Post pointed out this week: “In 2010, the Supreme Court’s landmark ‘Citizens United’ decision cleared the way for corporations and labor unions to raise and spend unlimited sums of money, and register for tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(4).”
That decision was extremely unpopular. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released nearly a month after the decision was handed down found that 80 percent of Americans opposed it.
So an unpopular movement applied for tax-exempt status under conditions made possible by an unpopular court decision, in order to influence politics with unfathomable amounts money from unnamed donors? Good luck gaining sympathy for that.
ZEALOTRY The Congressional Tea Party Caucus founder, Michele Bachmann, who never misses a chance to say something asinine, suggested to the conservative site wnd.com that it was “reasonable” to worry that the I.R.S. might use Obamacare to kill conservatives.
The article reads, in part:
“Since the I.R.S. also is the chief enforcer of Obamacare requirements, she asked whether the I.R.S.’s admission means it ‘will deny or delay access to health care’ for conservatives. At this point, she said, that ‘is a reasonable question to ask.’ ”
“Reasonable” and “Bachmann” don’t even belong in the same conversation, let alone the same sentence, and yet she remains one of the most visible spokeswomen for the movement.
Even former House Speaker Newt Gingrich warned Republicans against overreaching. In an NPR interview that aired Friday, Gingrich, referring to the impeachment of President Clinton, said, “I think we overreached in ’98 — how’s that for a quote you can use?”
He continued, advising his party to be “calm and factual.” Ha! That’s too rich, and too late. Republicans are already invoking the I-word.
Republicans are their own worst enemies at times like these, unable to leave well-enough alone, and missing chances to honestly engage the public as they race off the cliff in the supercharged outrage machine.
By: Charles M. Blow, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, May 17, 2013
We know American politics are dysfunctional. But after a week of scandal obsession during which the nation’s capital and the media virtually ignored the problems most voters care about — jobs, incomes, growth, opportunity, education — it’s worth asking if there is something especially flawed about our democracy.
Our circumstances certainly have their own particular disabilities: a radicalization of conservative politics, over-the-top mistrust of President Obama on the right, high-tech gerrymandering in the House and a Senate snarled by non-constitutional super-majority requirements.
Still, while it may not be much of a comfort, the democratic distemper is not a peculiarly American phenomenon. Across most of the democratic world, there is an impatience bordering on exhaustion with electoral systems and political classes.
Citizen dissatisfaction is hardly surprising in the wake of a deeply damaging economic downturn. That doesn’t make the challenge any less daunting. We should consider whether democracy itself is in danger of being discredited. Politicians might usefully disentangle themselves from their day-to-day power struggles long enough to take seriously their responsibility to a noble idea and the systems that undergird it.
It’s not hard to discover that this conundrum is global and not just our own. “Has democracy had its day?” is the headline on Columbia University historian Mark Mazower’s cover story in the May issue of Prospect, a British magazine. The subhead: “Electoral politics has had a bad decade.”
Earlier this month, the Transatlantic Academy, a global partnership of think tanks led by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, issued “The Democratic Disconnect,” a sober report by a group of distinguished academics.
“Democracy is in trouble,” the report begins. “The collective engagement of a concerned citizenry for the public good — the bedrock of a healthy democracy — is eroding. Democratic governments often seem crippled in their capacity to deliver what their people want and need. They are neither as responsive nor as accountable as they need to be in an era of hard choices and rising nondemocratic powers. There is widespread concern about apparent declining rates of voter participation and about the alienation or disaffection of citizens from the political process.”
In Europe, the authors noted, “there is fear that the distance between ordinary citizens and the politicians and bureaucrats in Brussels compromises democratic legitimacy.” In the United States, “lamentations about gridlock and polarization are the order of the day.” Even our peaceable neighbor Canada is not immune. “Canadians,” they write, “worry about the tendency of their political system to place largely unaccountable power in the hands of the prime minister.”
The report does include some useful suggestions for reviving the democratic spirit and improving democratic practice. But it is not alarmist to be uneasy about democracy’s prospects. Ernst Hillebrand, the head of international policy analysis for the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the German Social Democratic Party’s think tank, describes a chilling finding in a 2009 survey by the German polling firm Forsa: “that zero percent — yes, zero percent — of workers in Germany believe they can have a significant impact on how policy in Germany is shaped via the ballot box.”
And bear in mind that a poll released last week by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that Germans are far more satisfied with their country’s situation than are their European neighbors.
In a conversation last week during a visit to Washington, Hillebrand pointed to two streams of discontent the world’s democracies face. One is material. The other might be called spiritual.
On the one side, large numbers of lower-middle-class and working-class voters have seen their economic standing deteriorate over two or three decades. There has been a substantial transfer of wealth and income from labor — which is how most people pay their way — to capital. Productivity gains no longer lead to wage gains. This builds justified frustration.
At the same time, he said, many citizens, especially the young, have enhanced expectations for “participation, self-realization and control over their lives.” They do not see current electoral arrangements in democracies giving them much chance to achieve any of these goals.
Since World War II, bouts of economic growth have allowed democracies to buy their way out of trouble. One can hope this will happen again — and soon. In the meantime, politicians might contemplate their obligations to stewardship of the democratic ideal. They could begin by pondering what an unemployed 28-year-old makes of a ruling elite that expends so much energy feuding over how bureaucrats rewrote a set of talking points.
By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, May 19, 2013
“The Nakedly Transparent Flouting Of The Tax Laws”: Washington Misses The Point On The Tea Party And The IRS
My pixels have been absent from these precincts while I report a feature story for The Nation, and I’ll have more to say about the ersatz Scandalpalooza being ginned up by Republicans this week, but for now I wanted to drop a quick word about just how overblown the outrage is about the Internal Revenue Service flagging groups with “Tea Party” in their name for extra scrutiny when they apply for 501(c)(4) status. Jeffrey Toobin, in a New Yorker post called “The Real I.R.S. Scandal,” succinctly explains the legal background:
It’s important to review why the Tea Party groups were petitioning the I.R.S. anyway. They were seeking approval to operate under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code. This would require them to be “social welfare,” not political, operations. There are significant advantages to being a 501(c)(4). These groups don’t pay taxes; they don’t have to disclose their donors—unlike traditional political organizations, such as political-action committees. In return for the tax advantage and the secrecy, the 501(c)(4) organizations must refrain from traditional partisan political activity, like endorsing candidates….
Particularly leading up to the 2012 elections, many conservative organizations, nominally 501(c)(4)s, were all but explicitly political in their work. In every meaningful sense, groups like Americans for Prosperity were operating as units of the Republican Party. Democrats organized similar operations, but on a much smaller scale. (They undoubtedly would have done more, but they lacked the Republican base for funding such efforts.)
So the scandal—the real scandal—is that 501(c)(4) groups have been engaged in political activity in such a sustained and open way.
Just how sustained and open a way? Well, in June of last year I reported from the closing weekend of the recall campaign against Republican governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin:
I drive to a microscopic town next to Racine, where a giant open field was a stop on the bus tour in which Americans for Prosperity, the fake grassroots group that fronts for the Koch Brothers, was shipping supporters from, among other places, Illinois, to these here rallies around the state. Not, they claim, to support the Walker campaign—that would violate election law—which they had nothing to do with, but just in the interest of “educating folks in the importance of the reforms.”
The three hundred or so (though National Review counts differently than me) white people—and one black, who stood precisely in the center of the front row and wore an AFP staff T-shirt—heard an AFP staffer hosanna “economic freedom, limited government, and lower taxes.” And that “even Barack Obama’s Bureau of Labor Statistics” said “we’ve created jobs in Wisconsin.” Then he introduced as an “honorary Wisconsinite,” the head of Americans for Prosperity—Wisconsin, Tim Phillips—a Southerner who made a joke about frigid weather. Apparently reverse carpet-bagging is a signal feature of this “grassroots” movement.
Then a third speaker, but I had already wandered off, bored by the conspicuous lack of energy, past a sign reading “Republican’s Are Makers Democrats Are Takers” [sic, of course], and tables featuring free DVDs on both the glories of Scott Walker and the United Nation’s plan to enslave the United States, in the direction of a second, entirely separate, stage across the field put up by the Racine Tea Party. A few minutes later, the rest of the crowd followed me there. For, yes, an entirely separate rally, which had “nothing” to do with the nonpartisan one two hundred yards away that had just ended [wink wink, nudge nudge]. There they heard Walker’s running mate Rebecca Kleefisch rant about the “big union bosses from out of state,” and how the unions were just like Goliath, and her boss was exactly like David.
Me, I fingered my slick Americans for Prosperity—Wisconsin flier, which I later noticed contained the most revealing typo in the history of politics. “The forces of BIG GOVERNMENT would like nothing more than for you to DO NOTHING,” it warned, but promised, “We are gathering citizens together from across Michigan to make phone calls, knock on doors and educate their friends, family and neighbors.”
As Toobin points out, this is the real scandal: the nakedly transparent flouting of the tax laws by groups claiming to be nonpolitical and nonpartisan. Count on the media in Washington to entirely miss that obvious point.
By: Rick Perlstein, The Nation, May 16, 2013