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“The Diction Debates”: To Cynical Republicans, “An Act Of Terror Is Different Than A Terrorist Attack”

Marc Ambinder explained this morning that Benghazi is “a debate about post-tragedy diction.” That’s certainly bolstered by recent Republican arguments, nearly all of which have to do with the timing of various choices of words.

If you’re thinking that genuine political controversies are supposed to deal with more meaningful issues than diction, you and I are on the same page, though congressional Republicans and much of the political world are on a very different page.

Take Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), for example. On Sept. 12, 2012, President Obama described the Benghazi attack as an act of terror. McCain yesterday insisted that those comments don’t count: “The president didn’t call it an ‘act of terror.’ … He condemned ‘acts of terrorism.'”

What matters, in Republicans’ minds, is the diction. House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) was thinking along the same lines today on Fox News. Watch on YouTube

“The president sent a letter to the president of Libya were he didn’t call it a terrorist attack even when in real time the president of Libya was calling this a pre-planned Sept. 11 terrorist attack,” Issa said. He added, “An act of terror is different than a terrorist attack.”

This is amusing, in a pathetic sort of way, and not just because of Issa’s rhetorical framework. It’s also striking because it’s shining a light on what Republicans consider truly important about this story: which officials used the words Republicans like and when.

Ambinder added, “The Diction Debates aren’t real because the opponent insists he/she knows about the motivation for using/ not using certain key words.” That’s also true — McCain, Issa and others are quite animated over which official used the word “terror” on which day.

But all of this serves to remind us that the political world has defined “scandal” down to a meaningless level. Watergate dealt with crimes committed by a president. Iran-Contra dealt with a White House that sold arms to a sworn enemy to finance an illegal war. The Plame Affair, the U.S. Attorney purge, and illegal warrantless wiretaps dealt with systemic wrongdoing at the highest levels.

In 2013, though, we’re apparently stuck with, “An act of terror is different than a terrorist attack.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 13, 2013

May 15, 2013 Posted by | Republicans, Terrorism | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Old Failed Gang Is Back Together”: After Spectacular Failures And Unprecedented Abuses, Pretending To Have Credibility

Several prominent officials from the Bush/Cheney era have been in the news lately, largely as a result of ongoing controversies, but many of them — Robert Gates, retired Adm. Mike Mullen, retired Gen. David Petraeus — are under fire from the right for not toeing the party’s anti-Obama line.

There are, however, plenty of loyal Bushies stepping up to launch rhetorical attacks. Indeed, they seem happy to pretend they still have credibility and are compelling messengers to express their party’s contempt for the president.

Former Attorney General Mike Mukasey was on Fox News this morning accusing Obama of abusing the power of the executive branch (no, seriously); former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is making the rounds on conservative talk radio; and former Vice President Dick Cheney is, well, doing what Dick Cheney does.

“They lied. They claimed it was because of a demonstration video, that they wouldn’t have to admit it was really all about their incompetence,” Cheney told Fox News’s Sean Hannity on Monday. “They ignored repeated warnings from the CIA about the threat. They ignored messages from their own people on the ground that they needed more security.”

“I think it’s one of the worst incidences, frankly, that I can recall in my career … if they told the truth about Benghazi, that it was a terrorist attack by an Al Qaeda-led group, it would destroy the confidence that was the basis of his campaign for reelection,” Cheney added. “They tried to cover it up by constructing a false story.”

As a substantive matter, much of what Cheney said is ridiculous and wrong, as is often the case. If the failed former V.P. has proof of White House lies and a cover-up, he’s welcome to share it, but the fact that preliminary intelligence out of Benghazi was wrong isn’t evidence of either.

But more to the point, does Dick Cheney, of all people, really want to have a conversation about national security lies, ignored warnings about terrorist threats, and covering things up by constructing false stories? Because that’s largely a summary of his eight years of spectacular failures and unprecedented abuses in office. Indeed, I’m not sure whether to find it funny or sad that he, Rumsfeld, and Mukasey feel comfortable showing their faces in public again.

As for Cheney seeing Benghazi as “one of the worst incidences” that he “can recall,” I’m not going to play a game of ranking the seriousness of terrorist attacks, but I’m curious if Cheney recalls 9/11. If he doesn’t think that counts — and there’s some evidence to suggest he doesn’t — and he only wants to focus on attacks on American outposts abroad, I wonder if Cheney might also recall the 1983 bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut that left 241 American servicemen dead, right before Reagan cut and ran.

Any of this ring a bell, Dick?

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 14, 2013

May 15, 2013 Posted by | GOP, Neo-Cons | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Of Cover-Ups And Crimes”: Editing Talking Points Is Not Even Close

Of all the crazy things people on the right are now saying about Benghazi, I’ll admit that the one that most makes me want to scream is that it’s “worse than Watergate.” I get that much of the time it’s just a way of saying “This is a big deal,” and maybe there are some of your dumber elected officials (your Goehmerts, your Bachmanns) who believe it. But the idea is so plainly absurd that sometimes it feels like they’re just trolling, saying it not because any sane person could think it’s true, but because they just want to drive me nuts.

And as long as they keep saying it, I guess we’ll have to keep reminding people with short memories what actual scandals involve. To that end, Jonathan Bernstein has a nice reminder for us about Watergate and what a real cover-up looks like, in the course of which he counters the old “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up” aphorism: “I’ll stick with what I always say about this: its the crime, not the cover-up, that gets people in trouble. The reason for the Watergate cover-up was that specific crimes had been committed, crimes which could have (had they been confessed to in June 1972) sent much of the senior White House staff, much of the campaign organization, and perhaps the President of the United States straight to prison.” I’d add that in the case of Watergate, the cover-up actually consisted of new crimes, added on to the original crimes.

This is an important distinction to make. As the Watergate scandal was proceeding, Nixon and his top advisors didn’t just say, “Let’s send the press secretary out to say this is all no big deal.” They committed crimes in their effort to contain the scandal. They paid hush money. They destroyed records. They committed multiple acts of obstruction of justice. And just as they should have, for those crimes, some of Nixon’s top advisors went to prison.

Everybody in politics tries to avoid looking bad, and everybody attempts to shape the news to their liking. Did the Obama administration do that with regard to the Benghazi story? Sure, just like every administration does every day, not to mention every member of Congress. They portray themselves as noble and courageous, and their opponents as craven and cynical. They encourage reporters to talk about issues that make them look better, and ignore topics that make them look worse. But when you call those efforts a “cover-up,” you’re implying something much more serious. There was a cover-up in Watergate, and people went to jail for it. There was a cover-up in Iran-Contra—Oliver North, currently appearing on Fox News to express outrage at the Obama administration, perjured himself before Congress and shredded incriminating White House documents to hide the Reagan administration’s illegal and morally abhorrent scheme. That’s a cover-up. Editing talking points? Not even close.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, May 14, 2013

May 15, 2013 Posted by | Benghazi, Politics | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“When The IRS Targeted Liberals”: Outrage Only Occurs When Lines Between Politics And Social Welfare Are To GOP’s Liking

While few are defending the Internal Revenue Service for targeting some 300 conservative groups, there are two critical pieces of context missing from the conventional wisdom on the “scandal.” First, at least from what we know so far, the groups were not targeted in a political vendetta — but rather were executing a makeshift enforcement test (an ugly one, mind you) for IRS employees tasked with separating political groups not allowed to claim tax-exempt status, from bona fide social welfare organizations. Employees are given almost zero official guidance on how to do that, so they went after Tea Party groups because those seemed like they might be political. Keep in mind, the commissioner of the IRS at the time was a Bush appointee.

The second is that while this is the first time this kind of thing has become a national scandal, it’s not the first time such activity has occurred.

“I wish there was more GOP interest when I raised the same issue during the Bush administration, where they audited a progressive church in my district in what look liked a very selective way,” California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff said on MSNBC Monday. “I found only one Republican, [North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones], that would join me in calling for an investigation during the Bush administration. I’m glad now that the GOP has found interest in this issue and it ought to be a bipartisan concern.”

The well-known church, All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena, became a bit of a cause célèbre on the left after the IRS threatened to revoke the church’s tax-exempt status over an anti-Iraq War sermon the Sunday before the 2004 election. “Jesus [would say], ‘Mr. President, your doctrine of preemptive war is a failed doctrine,’” rector George Regas said from the dais.

The church, which said progressive activism was in its “DNA,” hired a powerful Washington lawyer and enlisted the help of Schiff, who met with the commissioner of the IRS twice and called for a Government Accountability Office investigation, saying the IRS audit violated the First Amendment and was unduly targeting a political opponent of the Bush administration. “My client is very concerned that the close coordination undertaken by the IRS allowed partisan political concerns to direct the course of the All Saints examination,” church attorney Marcus Owens, who is widely considered one of the country’s leading experts on this area of the law, said at the time. In 2007, the IRS closed the case, decreeing that the church violated rules preventing political intervention, but it did not revoke its nonprofit status.

And while All Saints came under the gun, conservative churches across the country were helping to mobilize voters for Bush with little oversight. In 2006, citing the precedent of All Saints, “a group of religious leaders accused the Internal Revenue Service yesterday of playing politics by ignoring its complaint that two large churches in Ohio are engaging in what it says are political activities, in violation of the tax code,” the New York Times reported at the time. The churches essentially campaigned for a Republican gubernatorial candidate, they alleged, and even flew him on one of their planes.

Meanwhile, Citizens for Ethics in Washington filed two ethics complaints against a church in Minnesota. “You know we can’t publicly endorse as a church and would not for any candidate, but I can tell you personally that I’m going to vote for Michele Bachmann,” pastor Mac Hammond of the Living Word Christian Center in Minnesota said in 2006 before welcoming her to the church. The IRS opened an audit into the church, but it went nowhere after the church appealed the audit on a technicality.

And it wasn’t just churches. In 2004, the IRS went after the NAACP, auditing the nation’s oldest civil rights group after its chairman criticized President Bush for being the first sitting president since Herbert Hoover not to address the organization. “They are saying if you criticize the president we are going to take your tax exemption away from you,” then-chairman Julian Bond said. “It’s pretty obvious that the complainant was someone who doesn’t believe George Bush should be criticized, and it’s obvious of their response that the IRS believes this, too.”

In a letter to the IRS, Democratic Reps. Charles Rangel, Pete Stark and John Conyers wrote: “It is obvious that the timing of this IRS examination is nothing more than an effort to intimidate the members of the NAACP, and the communities the organization represents, in their get-out-the-vote effort nationwide.”

Then, in 2006, the Wall Street Journal broke the story of how a little-known pressure group called Public Interest Watch — which received 97 percent of its funds from Exxon Mobile one year — managed to get the IRS to open an investigation into Greenpeace. Greenpeace had labeled Exxon Mobil the “No. 1 climate criminal.” The IRS acknowledged its audit was initiated by Public Interest Watch and threatened to revoke Greenpeace’s tax-exempt status, but closed the investigation three months later.

As the Journal reporter, Steve Stecklow, later said in an interview, “This comes against a backdrop where a number of conservative groups have been attacking nonprofits and NGOs over their tax-exempt status. There have been hearings on Capitol Hill. There have been a number of conservative groups in Washington who have been quite critical.”

Indeed, the year before that, the Senate held a hearing on nonprofits’ political activity. Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, the then-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said the IRS needed better enforcement, but also “legislative changes” to better define the lines between politics and social welfare, since they had not been updated in “a generation.” Unfortunately, neither Congress nor the IRS has defined 501(c)4′s sufficiently to this day, leaving the door open for IRS auditors to make up their own, discriminatory rules.

Those cases mostly involved 501(c)3 organizations, which live in a different section of the tax code for real charities like hospitals and schools. The rules are much stronger and better developed for (c)3′s, in part because they’ve been around longer. But with “social welfare” (c)4 groups, the kind of political activity we saw in 2010 and 2012 is so unprecedented that you get cases like Emerge America, a progressive nonprofit that trains Democratic female candidates for public office. The group has chapters across the country, but in 2011, chapters in Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada were denied 501(c)4 tax-exempt status. Leaders called the situation “bizarre” because in the five years Nevada had waited for approval, the Kentucky chapter was approved, only for the other three to be denied.

A former IRS official told the New York Times that probably meant the applications were sent to different offices, which use slightly different standards. Different offices within the same organization that are supposed to impose the exact same rules in a consistent manner have such uneven conceptions of where to draw the line at a political group, that they can approve one organization and then deny its twin in a different state.

All of these stories suggest that while concern with the IRS posture toward conservative groups now may be merited, to fully understand the situation requires a bit of context and history.

 

By: Alex Seitz-Wald, Salon, May 14, 2013

May 15, 2013 Posted by | GOP | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Republican Political Sideshow”: GOP Riling Up The Base For Fundraising Purposes

President Obama hosted another White House press conference this morning, this time standing alongside Prime Minister David Cameron, and addressed the stories that seem to be dominating the political world’s attention.

On the IRS matter, for example, the president joined the bipartisan chorus, insisting that those responsible must be held “fully accountable.” Obama added, “If in fact IRS personnel engaged in the kind of practices that have been reported on and were intentionally targeting conservative groups, then that’s outrageous and there’s no place for it…. I’ve got no patience with it. I will not tolerate it and we will make sure that we find out exactly what happened on this.”

But it was the president’s comments on Benghazi that were of particular interest.

Obama appeared eager to resolve the matter once and for all. This is a little long, but it’s worth your time:

“The whole issue of talking points, frankly, throughout this process has been a sideshow….[T]he emails that you allude to were provided by us to congressional committees. They reviewed them several months ago, concluded that in fact there was nothing afoul in terms of the process that we had used. And suddenly, three days ago, this gets spun up as if there’s something new to the story. There’s no ‘there’ there.

“Keep in mind, by the way, these so-called talking points that were prepared for Susan Rice five, six days after the event occurred, pretty much matched the assessments that I was receiving at that time in my presidential daily briefing. And keep in mind that two to three days after Susan Rice appeared on the Sunday shows using these talking points, which have been the source of all this controversy, I sent up the head of our National Counterterrorism Center, Matt Olsen, up to Capitol Hill, and specifically said it was an act of terrorism and that extremist elements inside of Libya had been involved in it.

“So if this was some effort on our part to try to downplay what had happened or tamp it down, that would be a pretty odd thing that three days later we end up putting out all the information that in fact has now served as the basis for everybody recognizing that this was a terrorist attack and that it may have included elements that were planned by extremists inside of Libya.

“Who executes some sort of cover-up or effort to tamp things down for three days? So the whole thing defies logic. And the fact that this keeps on getting churned out, frankly, has a lot to do with political motivations…. They’ve used it for fund-raising.”

These arguments have the added benefit of being true.

If you go through every lingering argument from the right on Benghazi, what we’re left with is one thing: the multiple drafts of the talking points. That’s it. That’s the “scandal.”

And what do the talking points tell us? That there was bureaucratic infighting between State and the CIA. Why is that scandalous? It’s not.

What’s more, I talked to a senior administration official this morning who confirmed with me that there was a March 19 briefing in which all of these materials were shared with House lawmakers. The meeting , led by the General Counsel of the DNI, Robert Litt, included aides to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), and all of the members of the House Intelligence Committee and their staffs. After the briefing, no one, in either party, considered the email drafts controversial.

Two months later, however, we’re supposed to perceive this as Watergate?

There’s no great mystery here — congressional Republicans are manufacturing an outrage, in part to undermine the White House, in part because they hope to tarnish Hillary Clinton, and in part because the GOP sees value in riling up its base for fundraising purposes.

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 13, 2013

May 15, 2013 Posted by | Benghazi, GOP | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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