Whether or not an issue is a “scandal” tends to be a subjective question — one voter’s world-changing controversy may be another voter’s meaningless distraction. Indeed, the Beltway has spent a week telling the nation that the White House is engulfed in three ongoing scandals, though many of us suspect this analysis is deeply flawed.
But if we’re going to talk about real political scandals, can we at least have a conversation about Republicans lying to reporters about Benghazi?
For those who can’t watch clips online, CBS’s Major Garrett told viewers last night something news consumers don’t usually see or hear: House Republicans gave journalists bogus information, apparently on purpose, in the hopes of advancing the right’s version of the Benghazi story.
As Josh Marshall explained, “Generally, once partisan, tendentious sources leak information that turns out to be wrong, nothing’s ever done about it. That’s for many reasons, some good or somewhat understandable, mostly bad. But on CBS Evening News tonight, Major Garrett did something I don’t feel like I’ve seen in a really long time or maybe ever on a network news cast. He basically said straight out: Republicans told us these were the quotes; that wasn’t true.”
Given what we now know, congressional Republicans saw all of these materials in March, couldn’t find anything controversial, and moved on. But last week, desperate to manufacture a scandal, unnamed Republicans on Capitol Hill started giving “quotes” from the materials to reporters, making it seem as if the White House made politically motivated edits of Benghazi talking points.
As Major Garrett reported last night, the “quotes” Republicans passed along to the media were bogus. The GOP seems to have made them up. ABC’s Jonathan Karl didn’t know that, and presented them as fact, touching off a media firestorm.
Why would Republicans do this, knowing that there was evidence that would prove them wrong?
Probably because Republicans assumed the White House wouldn’t disclose all of the internal deliberations that went into writing the Benghazi talking points. When the White House did the opposite on Wednesday, giving news organizations everything, the GOP had been caught in its lie.
And yesterday, Major Garrett was willing to say so.
Maybe this was just an innocent mistake, rather than a deliberate attempt at deception? Nope: “On Monday, Mother Jones noted that the Republicans’ interim report included the correct version of the emails, signaling that more malice and less incompetence may have been at play with the alleged alterations.”
So, it appears there’s a Benghazi scandal after all. It’s not the wrongdoing Republicans alleged; it’s the wrongdoing Republicans committed.
The question for Darrell Issa is pretty straightforward: when does the investigation begin as to which Republicans lied to journalists and when?
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 17, 2013
“Not Half As Clever As They Think They Are”: Does Anybody In Washington Know How To Run A Conspiracy?
In case you’ve forgotten, what took Benghazi from “a thing Republicans keep whining about” to “Scandal!!!” was when some emails bouncing around between the White House, the CIA, and the State Department were passed to Jonathan Karl of ABC last Friday. The strange thing about it was that the emails didn’t contain anything particularly shocking—no crimes admitted, no malfeasance revealed. It showed 12 different versions of talking points as everybody edited them, but why this made it a “scandal” no one bothered to say. My best explanation is that just the fact of obtaining previously hidden information, regardless of its content, is so exciting to reporters that they just ran with it. They’re forever trying to get a glimpse behind the curtain, and when they do, they almost inevitably shout “Aha!” no matter what.
But then the problem comes. The White House decided to release a whole batch of emails related to the subject, and when they were examined, it turns out that what was given to Karl had been altered. Altered by whom, you ask? Altered by Karl’s source: Republican staffers on the House Oversight Committee, which had been given the emails by the White House (CBS’s Major Garrett confirmed this yesterday).
Let me just explain quickly in case you haven’t been following this, and then we’ll discuss what it means. Two changes to the emails were made, one in an email from Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, and one from State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland. Rhodes actually wrote, “We need to resolve this in a way that respects all the relevant equities, particularly the investigation.” That was changed to, “We must make sure that the talking points reflect all agency equities, including those of the State Department, and we don’t want to undermine the FBI investigation.” In the Nuland email, she actually wrote, “the penultimate point could be abused by Members to beat the State Department for not paying attention to Agency [CIA] warnings so why do we want to feed that either?,” which was changed to, “The penultimate point is a paragraph talking about all the previous warnings provided by the Agency about al-Qaeda’s presence and activities of al-Qaeda.”
So the changes have the effect of making it look like 1) the CIA was tying the attack to al Qaeda, but the State Department wanted to play that down publicly, and 2) the White House was taking special pains to protect the State Department. Neither of these things appear to be true, but there’s a logic to the Republican staffers wanting to paint that picture. Their argument, after all, is that the wrongdoing here consists of the White House (Obama!) and State Department (Clinton!) trying to fool everyone in America into thinking Benghazi wasn’t a terrorist attack, because Obama’s re-election hinged on the false belief that he had defeated al Qaeda forever, and if there’s any al Qaeda left then Mitt Romney would have won. And yes, that’s ridiculous, but it’s what many conservatives seem to believe.
Kevin Drum offers a good explanation for how this probably happened:
Republicans in Congress saw copies of these emails two months ago and did nothing with them. It was obvious that they showed little more than routine interagency haggling. Then, riding high after last week’s Benghazi hearings, someone got the bright idea of leaking two isolated tidbits and mischaracterizing them in an effort to make the State Department look bad. Apparently they figured it was a twofer: they could stick a shiv into the belly of the White House and they could then badger them to release the entire email chain, knowing they never would.
And then the White House called their bluff, because why not? It isn’t like there was anything incriminating in the real emails. But in their zeal to expose an imaginary White House/State Department conspiracy to mislead the public, the Republicans made their own little conspiracy to mislead the public. Or maybe it wasn’t a conspiracy, but just one person. We don’t know yet, because Karl hasn’t said who his source is. That’s his call to make; I’d argue that while in ordinary circumstances, the confidential relationship between reporter and source is sacrosanct, the reporter has every right to expose the source if the source lies to the reporter and makes him a party to a deception.
This is one of those times when you have to ask, “What the hell were they thinking?” Did the Republican staffers think they could get away with this? That once the White House noticed the alterations, they wouldn’t release the originals and use it to discredit their whole investigation? It’s another reminder that as a general rule, in politics nobody is half as clever as they think they are. Every once in a while you get a real honest-to-goodness conspiratorial scheme like Iran-Contra, but most of the time people are just bumbling about, making one poorly thought-out decision after another. The reason there aren’t more conspiracies is that people aren’t smart enough to put them together.
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, May 17, 2013
We’ve heard quite a bit recently from Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Donald Rumsfeld, and Michael Mukasey, so I suppose it stands to reason that it’s time for Alberto Gonzales to reemerge, too.
The former attorney general has been wise to keep a low profile. In office, he was a national laughingstock. Upon Gonzales’ departure, Andrew Cohen wrote a terrific piece explaining, “By any reasonable standard, the Gonzales Era at the Justice Department is void of almost all redemptive qualities.” He sought a legal job in D.C. but couldn’t find a firm that would hire him, and the last I heard, Gonzales ended up teaching at an unaccredited law school.
The former A.G. nevertheless appeared on MSNBC this morning, apparently ready to address some of the ongoing controversies. He seemed inclined to give the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt when it came to subpoenaing Associated Press phone logs, but this nevertheless stood out for me.
Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales recalled on Wednesday a time when he was confronted with a “very serious leak investigation” similar to the one that has embroiled the Obama administration this week. But, he said, he went a very different route and decided against subpoenaing a reporter’s notes.
Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday defended the seizure of Associated Press phone records, saying the Department of Justice was trying to get to the bottom of a “very serious leak” that “put American people at risk.” Gonzales, who oversaw a massive domestic wiretapping program under former President George W. Bush, acknowledged on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that the attorney general is often forced to “make a very hard determination” but when faced with a similar dilemma, his Justice Department “ultimately decided not to move forward.”
Now, I can’t be sure which case Gonzales is referring to, but for the record, let’s not forget that during his tenure as attorney general, the Justice Department “improperly gained access to reporters’ calling records as part of leak investigations.” Indeed, it happened quite a bit.
Unlike the current uproar, we didn’t hear much about this at the time, but if Gonzales wants to give the impression now that his DOJ showed greater restraint when it came to journalists and phone logs, he’s mistaken.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 15, 2013
We talked yesterday about last week’s ABC News reporting on emails related to the Obama administration’s Benghazi talking points, which are now very much in doubt. I’ve heard from ABC, so let’s follow up.
ABC’s reporting on Friday, which touched off a major political firestorm, pointed to a top White House official who reportedly sent an email siding with the State Department and recommending the removal of specific references to terrorist organizations and CIA warnings from the talking points. Jake Tapper at CNN reported yesterday that ABC was wrong — the “actual email differs from how sources characterized it” to ABC’s Jonathan Karl.
ABC last night referred me to this statement from Karl.
I asked my original source today to explain the different wording on the Ben Rhodes e-mail, and the fact that the words “State Department” were not included in the e-mail provided to CNN’s Tapper.
This was my source’s response, via e-mail: “WH reply was after a long chain of email about State Dept concerns. So when WH emailer says, take into account all equities, he is talking about the State equities, since that is what the email chain was about.”
As Josh Marshall explained, “I guarantee you Karl had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach when he saw that explanation. Because that explanation by reference to earlier comments in the thread is pretty weak. Karl’s follow on piece is entitled ‘More Details on Benghazi Talking Points Emerge’ but the substance is, ‘How the Story Changes When I Realize the Notes I Was Using Weren’t Reliable.’ The answer here is that Karl pretty clearly got burned by his source. But he at least seriously singed himself by making it really, really look like he was looking at the emails themselves when he wasn’t.”
Right. ABC’s Karl originally told his audience that he’d “obtained” White House materials, when in fact he’d seen summaries, apparently provided by a Republican staffer on Capitol Hill, which we now know were misleading. Karl received unreliable information, and seems to have been incomplete in how he characterized his direct knowledge of the information.
I wouldn’t ordinarily focus on one flawed report like this — we all make mistakes — but ABC’s coverage on Friday became the basis for a media firestorm, which now appears to have been a mistake.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 15, 2013
“Reporters Aren’t Above The Law”: The Media Shouldn’t Have Freer Speech Or Special Immunities From Investigation
Secret government investigations into speech protected by the First Amendment should alarm all of us. But we all have the same First Amendment rights; reporters don’t have freer speech. And giving reporters a special privilege to withhold evidence too often leads to lazy reporting in which nameless “official sources” get to make false accusations against innocent people without any accountability for either the government or the press. Instead of lobbying for a special privilege, reporters should consistently fight for more liberty for all Americans, including greater freedom of speech and greater freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.
The Associated Press is understandably outraged that the government used secret subpoenas to get phone records that might reveal who leaked classified information to the news wire. But the real problem is not that the government is investigating the AP; it is that the government is investigating speech about government operations. That would be just as troubling if the targets were non-journalists.
The government claims the AP’s reporting contained classified information, but that’s hard to avoid when so much of what the government does is classified. The temptation to overclassify and underdisclose must be very powerful; each administration promises greater transparency, yet each turns out to be worse than the last. That frustrates the control we’re supposed to have over our government.
Media companies think the answer is to give their employees special immunities from investigation. But reporters aren’t always right, either. Sometimes they team up with government leakers to wreck the lives of innocent men and women whom the leakers want to disparage publicly, like Steven Hatfill, Wen Ho Lee or Richard Jewell. When that happens, the victims have rights too. Reporters (like everyone else) have a duty to provide the evidence necessary to do justice. No one should be above the law.
A better answer is to tighten the rules for when government can act in secret and provide more protections for whistleblowers. That gives us the benefit of more public discourse about public policy without giving the press a license to smear.
Our government does too many things in the dark, and the press is often at its best when it shines a light on previously unknown programs or policies that we ought to debate publicly. We need laws that help the press shine a light on government actions, not laws that permit reporters to join government officials in the shadows.
By: Mark Grannis, Debate Club, U. S. News and World Report, May 16, 2013