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“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

May 22, 2013 Posted by | Benghazi | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Karl Rove’s Area Of Expertise”: The Guy Responsible For More Than His Share Of Meaningful Scandals

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

May 22, 2013 Posted by | Journalists, National Security | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Taxing The Most Vulnerable”: Student Loan Debt Is Bad For Women And Congress Is Making It Worse

How bad is the wage gap for women in the workplace?

For college graduates, it’s so bad that it begins even before women begin their careers.

According to a study by AAUW, Graduating to a Pay Gap: The Earnings of Women and Men One Year After College Graduation:

Women and men pay the same amount for their college degrees, but they often do not reap the same rewards. Among 2007-08 college graduates, women and men typically borrowed similar amounts to finance their educations, about $20,000. Because women are paid less than men are paid after college, student loan repayments make up a larger part of women’s earnings. In 2009, among full-time workers repaying their loans one year after college graduation, just over half of women (53 percent) compared with 39 percent of men were paying more than what we estimate a typical woman or man could reasonably afford to pay toward student loan debt. These numbers have risen in recent years.

Outstanding student loans today total more than $1 trillion, surpassing credit card debt. Student loan debt has increased nearly 300 percent over the last eight years, according to a report by the New York Federal Reserve.

Is Congress doing anything about this problem? As a matter of fact they are. They’re making it worse.

This July, unless Congress acts, the interest rate on federally subsidized Stafford loans is set to increase from 3.4 to 6.8 percent. In another example of the Congress’ attitude of “don’t tax the rich, but tax the most vulnerable,” student loans are seen as a nice little moneymaker.

The federal government will make $34 billion this year on student loans. If Congress allows the interest rate on these loans to double, the federal government will bring in even more revenue — money that comes straight from the pockets of students who had to borrow money to go to college.

Of course, not everyone has to pay such a burdensome rate of interest on loans. Big banks can borrow money from the Federal Reserve at a rate of less than 1 percent. There’s something very wrong with this picture.

This week, I attended a breakfast meeting with Senator Elizabeth Warren (D. Mass.) where she spoke about the first piece of standalone legislation she is introducing in the United States Senate.

In a speech on the Senate floor, Sen. Warren said:

The Bank on Students Loan Fairness Act would allow students who are eligible for federally subsidized Stafford loans to borrow at the same rate that big banks get through the Federal Reserve discount window. For one year, the Federal Reserve would make funds available to the Department of Education to make loans to students at the same low rate offered to the big banks. This will give students relief from high interest rates while giving Congress time to find a long-term solution.

At our breakfast, I remembered that it was the mobilization of enormous grassroots support for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (then-Professor Warren’s brainchild) that kept pressure on Congress to pass the legislation that established that agency. Her fight to keep student loan interest rates low is her next big campaign, and women should pull out all the stops to support her.

AAUW’s findings tell us that women are disproportionately likely to take out loans; among 2007-2008 graduates, 68 percent of women borrowed money for college compared to 63 percent of men.

According to the AAUW report:

For many young women, the challenge of paying back student loans is their first encounter with the pay gap. “Student loan debt burden” is defined as the percentage of earnings devoted to student loan payments. A high student loan debt burden is an indicator that repayment may create hardship. Individuals with high student loan debt burden are less likely to own a home, have a car loan, or even make rent payments. High student loan debt burden is a challenge for a growing number of college graduates, men and women alike, but is particularly widespread among women, in large part because of the pay gap.

The National Organization for Women (NOW) has a long history of supporting equal pay, comparable worth and other policies that advance women’s economic security. NOW was proud to support Elizabeth Warren in her successful campaign for the U.S. Senate, and we are equally proud to support her urgently needed legislation to reduce the burden of student loan debt.

It’s hard to imagine how anyone could oppose a bill that simply requires the Fed to set interest rates for students at the same low rate the big banks get. But get this: an opponent of Sen. Warren’s bill reportedly suggested — presumably hoping we’ve all forgotten about the taxpayers’ bailout of the too-big-to-fail banks — that unlike students, the big banks deserve to pay a super-low interest rate because they never fail. And they say the 1 Percent has no sense of humor.

Elizabeth Warren has planted the flag for student loan reform by introducing her bill, and now it’s up to us to mobilize support and pressure Congress to pass it. This is grassroots democracy at its best. So, blog about this, write letters to the editor, lobby your senators and your representative.

Help ensure that a college education is a pathway to fulfillment and success for women, and not an opening to crushing debt.


By: Terry O’Neill, President, National Organization for Women, The Huffington Post, May 20, 2013

May 22, 2013 Posted by | Education, Women | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Hoping No One Will Know The Difference”: Conservatives Shift Gears On IRS To “Income Tax Audits”

Something odd happened to Barack Obama’s approval rating last week: nothing. With a bunch of controversies swirling about the administration, one might think Americans would be thinking less of his performance. Yet the latest polls from Gallup and CNN both show his job approval essentially unchanged, at just at or above 50 percent.

So far anyway, these “scandals” are, like most scandals, an almost completely partisan phenomenon. Yes, there are some—Watergate, Iran-Contra—where the facts are so damning and undeniable that even the president’s own party can’t help but acknowledge them. But Benghazi and the IRS are not Watergate or Iran-Contra. Perhaps they’ll turn out to be, if we find out something completely shocking. Perhaps we’ll discover that Barack Obama is on tape personally ordering the Cincinnati IRS office to put the screws to Tea Party groups, just as Richard Nixon was on tape ordering his aides to get the IRS to audit his political opponents. But that hasn’t happened yet.

So conservatives are trying something new. If you were paying close attention the last couple of days, you saw them bringing up a new charge, one unrelated to the actual controversy: IRS income-tax audits. At first glance that may seem strange. After all, there hasn’t been any evidence that anyone was audited because of their political beliefs or activities. This controversy is about political groups being given undue scrutiny when they applied for 501(c)(4) status as “social welfare” organizations. The part of the agency that carries out those reviews doesn’t audit individuals’ tax returns. Yet here was Peggy Noonan, claiming “The IRS scandal has two parts. The first is the obviously deliberate and targeted abuse, harassment and attempted suppression of conservative groups. The second is the auditing of the taxes of political activists.” The “evidence” for Noonan’s explosive charge is that she read about a couple of conservatives who were among the 1.5 million Americans who were audited by the IRS last year (read Nate Silver for more on how unbelievably stupid Noonan’s allegation is). Here‘s an account of the weekend’s Virginia GOP convention, at which a whole slate of Tea Partiers was selected to run in November’s elections there: “By being here today, every one of you has just signed up for an audit by the I.R.S.,’ Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, said in a keynote speech. ‘You are officially now on the White House enemies list.'”

We’ll be hearing more of these stories. Because after all, if 1.5 million Americans were audited last year, plenty of them were conservatives. And plenty of those will be happy to tell their stories to Fox News or Rush Limbaugh or Peggy Noonan. “I signed up for my local Tea Party, and not six months later the IRS came after me!” they’ll say. Some of these stories will be told in high-profile forums, and others in more obscure outlets; for instance, here’s a conservative writer telling her tale of oppression to the Catholic News Agency. During her audit, she says, “They only wanted to talk about who was paying me to do my writing.” Really? “Hendershott said that the questions were not explicitly political, but she interpreted them to mean the agency was ‘wanting to know if there were individuals or groups who wanted me to write to advance their cause.'” Maybe. Or maybe because she’s a writer and they were auditing her income taxes, they were asking her who paid her to write because that’s where she gets her income. Just tossing that out there.

It’s pretty obvious what’s going on here. On one hand, nobody likes the IRS, so people are ready to believe the worst about the agency’s activities. On the other hand, getting your 501(c)(4) application subjected to unusual scrutiny is not something most people can relate to. Even worse, the reporting that’s emerging about the IRS office in Cincinnati (see here) paints a picture not of some coordinated effort at political oppression, but of a bunch of overworked, ill-trained people who barely understood the standards they were supposed to apply to these applications and didn’t get the support they needed from Washington. They ended up acting inappropriately, but it wasn’t a criminal conspiracy, and it didn’t reach up to the heights of power.

For conservatives, that’s not a very satisfying story. But they know that everyone fears getting their tax returns audited. So why not just tell everyone that’s what happened?

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, May 20, 2013

May 22, 2013 Posted by | Conservatives, Internal Revenue Service | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Massive Media Deflection”: There Is No Scandal in Tracking Down Leaks

In the middle of the other “scandals,” i.e. Benghazi and the Internal Revenue Service, that the Obama Administration has to deal with – and which may change the general direction of politics in America at the next general election – there is also the Department of Justice going after the Associated Press in a criminal investigation into leaks of classified information.

The real “news” for us on this last one is that it is no scandal, even though the media are spinning it that way.

Why? Simple: They want to continue getting – from “leakers” inside government – classified information and then publishing it. To them,  it’s just another “hot story,” while for the people actually involved in the situation, it may mean risking their lives or the failure of an operation that could jeopardize our national security. In short, it sells us all out.

This is also why, in our Constitutional form of government, there is absolutely no right or protection for anyone to publish national security information – and “anyone” includes the media and press. Not only that, let’s say that a classified document is stolen or taken from an authorized government facility and given to a reporter. In this situation, the government clearly has the right – and even the obligation – to investigate the disappearance of the document and retrieve it by any legal means. This includes getting warrants for telephone records, wiretaps and even carrying out physical searches. And this same logic applies in the digital world.

Is it “legal” for the Justice Department to go after the AP as part of a criminal investigation into the loss or unauthorized disclosure of classified information? Absolutely, and the suggestion of a “scandal” is a massive deflection by the media. Again, the First Amendment simply does not “allow” the publication of national security information – never has, never will.

For some international perspective: We may be the only democracy in the world not to have what is called an “official secrets act,” a law that makes it a crime to publish national security information. This explains why we rarely – if ever – see similar situations arise, for example, in Canada, the United Kingdom or most other European countries. In these countries, their media simply do not – under penalty of criminal law – publish their classified information, much less actively seek it out, as they do here.

Do we need such a law here? Again, it is simply impossible to get an objective discussion of this question because of the emotional “freedom of the press” arguments, which begin from the false premise that there is somehow a constitutional right to publish government secrets. There is no such “right.”

On the other hand, does the government classify way too much information and keep it classified way too long? Yes. However, this problem has been addressed and readdressed over the years by rules that limit the number of “classification authorities,” by periodic reviews of classified information and by limitations on the number of years information can be classified. Of course, because of the immense damage some information could cause if it were released, there have to be exceptions – but this is the very nature of national security related information.

Ultimately, it is the president, as commander in chief, who is responsible for establishing, protecting and eventually releasing this kind of information – not the media.

Accordingly, when I was bi-partisan General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), I drafted this rather innocuous provision for inclusion in the fiscal 2001 Intelligence Authorization Act:

Whoever, being an officer or employee of the United States, a former or retired officer or employee of the United States, any other person with authorized access to classified information, or any other person formerly with authorized access to classified information, knowingly and willfully discloses, or attempts to disclose, any classified information acquired as a result of such person’s authorized access to classified information to a person (other than an officer or employee of the United States) who is not authorized access to such classified information, knowing that the person is not authorized access to such classified information, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than three years, or both.

Was there “method to my madness”? Sure, however, it was also surprisingly easy for me to get bipartisan agreement to the language in both Houses of Congress – and also agreement from the White House in a “SAP,” a “Statement of Administration Policy.” And, after all, who could possibly disagree with it? It was “motherhood and apple pie,” as they say in Washington. I held my breath.

Then some media lobbyist must have actually read the legislation and the whole media industry came unglued and went to “general quarters” to defeat actual enactment of the law. So, notwithstanding that the law had already passed both Houses of Congress with bipartisan support, they got to Bill Clinton with an enormous and personal effort: And, Clinton vetoed the law in his final days as president.

At least the Washington Post – one of the world class publishers in this country, along with the New York Times, of leaked U.S. classified information – showed  its “true colors” in this vapid editorial about the legislation:

“We don’t pretend to be neutral on this subject. Newspapers publish leaked material; our reporters solicit leaks. And some of the leaked material we publish is classified. But it is a mistake to imagine that all leaks of classified information are bad.” Editorial, The Washington Post, Aug. 24, 2001

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want any newspaper editor deciding whether to declassify presumptively sensitive national security information – they simply have no business doing it, regardless of how “hot” the story is or how well connected their “leaker” source is.

Hopefully, it’s this sad fact of political life in Washington that has the Obama Administration actively going after classified “leakers” – more than any administration has ever done. But far more effective would be some form of an “official secrets act” to better protect our nation.

Stated simply: It should be against the law to publish national security secrets – the First Amendment does not protect such irresponsible “journalism,” no matter how salacious the story might be. And, in this respect, we should be no different than our Canadian or British friends – no one there dares publish their national security secrets and no one here should dare publish ours.


By: Daniel J. Gallington, U. S. News and World Report, May 20, 2013

May 22, 2013 Posted by | Media, Press | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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