April 30, 2013

(Esam  Omran al-Fetori/Reuters)

Fox News’s Ed Henry this morning asked President Obama in a press conference about the latest wrinkle in the Benghazi story. State Department employees who survived the attack, noted Henry,  reportedly have been “blocked” from testifying about the Benghazi attacks. “Will you allow them to testify?” asked Henry.

The president had virtually no response to that one:

That’s firm evidence that President Obama doesn’t watch much Fox News. If he did, he’d know about these allegations.

Last night on “Special Report,” Fox News carried an interview with Washington lawyer and former deputy assistant attorney general Victoria Toensing, who is representing a State Department official who wishes to come forward and testify on Benghazi. As Toensing told Fox News, that’s not the smoothest of processes:

I am talking specifically about Benghazi, that people have been threatened, and not just the State Department. The people have been threatened at the CIA. Not, “We’re going to kill you,” or not, “We are going to prosecute you tomorrow,” but they are taking career people and making them well aware that their careers will be over.

Fox News has worked the story today as well, on the air as well as with Henry’s question at the press conference. It ran again just as the Erik Wemple Blog was writing this post. It owns this one, thanks to Toensing.

The veteran lawyer insists she didn’t reflexively run to the media to corral attention for her case. “That’s not how I practice law,” she tells the Erik Wemple Blog. Instead, she says, she watched as the media paid virtually no attention to the tension between the administration and Congress over Benghazi. In an April 16 letter, Rep. Darrell Issa’s House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform asked the State Department for information on “the process for clearing an attorney to receive sensitive or classified information from his or her client.” On April 26, the committee reported that it hadn’t received a reply.

That information is critical to Toensing’s efforts, which she says she’s providing pro bono; she needs the requisite clearances to deal with the information that her client has to share. When she learned that Issa’s committee still hadn’t gotten word from State on Monday, she decided to dig into her toolkit. “When [Secretary of State John] Kerry didn’t get back to him by Monday, I said, ‘That’s it, man. I’m complaining.”

“If this were a Republican administration, they [the media] would have been on top of them after the first letter,” says Toensing.

A reporter yesterday put the issue before State Department Acting Deputy Spokesman Patrick Ventrell:

QUESTION: More broadly, I wonder if I could ask whether the Department is aware of any efforts by attorneys representing whistleblowers in the Benghazi case or, in fact, survivors of the Benghazi attacks who have sought any kinds of security clearances so that they can review documents in preparation for possible testimony on the matter.

MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware of private counsel seeking security clearances or anything to that regard. But let me just take this opportunity to really underscore once again the unprecedented level of cooperation and transparency we provided Congress in terms of the Benghazi situation. You know that there have been eight hearings, 20 briefings, 25,000 pages of documentation, and of course the independent Accountability Review Board, which provided its classified report in full to the U.S. Congress. So our unprecedented cooperation stands on its record going back previously, and we’ve, as you heard the Secretary say, will continue to provide cooperation going forward.

How’s that statement not a story? asks Toensing. Two letters are sent from a House committee to the State Department about clearance procedures for lawyers regarding Benghazi testimony, Toensing notes. And yet that’s the response from a State Department spokesman? “Why wouldn’t that be covered?” asks Toensing.

“I wasn’t out to make this a media thing. I was doing this all low-key. I waited for the process and truly figured that when the chairman wrote to the State Department, I would get my clearances,” says Toensing. Perhaps the press conference will change things, as the president’s “not familiar” response will force other outlets to generate a story or two.

Not that Toensing is optimistic: “I’ve been told by people,” says Toensing, “that the major networks do not want to do a Benghazi story.” Upon hearing of that allegation, a network executive responded, “That’s pure nonsense. Any individual who has a story to tell that would vastly change anyone’s understanding of Benghazi would be booked on every network.”

Issa issued this statement on President Obama’s whistleblower response:

A lawyer for Benghazi whistleblowers has publicly stated that the State Department is blocking her client’s ability to talk freely with counsel. Over the past two weeks, I have sent four letters requesting that this Administration make information available about how lawyers – who already have security clearances and are representing Benghazi whistleblowers – can be cleared to fully hear their clients’ stories. I have yet to receive any response from the Obama Administration.

Even if the President really doesn’t know anything about someone wanting to come forward, his position should be that whistleblowers deserve protection and that anyone who has different information about Benghazi is free to come forward to Congress. The President’s unwillingness to commit himself to protecting whistleblowers only aids those in his Administration who are intimidating them.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.