Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.): “In the AP [Associated Press] case you have appointed Ronald Machen, and I’m sure he is a fine U.S. attorney, but can he be considered to be independent when in fact when this Congress held you in contempt he was the individual who refused, on your orders, to prosecute the case? If he will obey your orders in not living up to a contempt of Congress, can we believe that he is in fact independent?”
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.: “I did not order Mr. Machen not to do anything with regard to — I won’t characterize it — the contempt finding from this Congress. He made the determination about what he was going to do on his own.”
— exchange on Capitol Hill, May 15, 2013
The fierce exchanges between Rep. Darrell Issa and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Wednesday garnered a lot of attention, but there was also an interesting substantive point that was discussed: Did Ronald C. Machen Jr., the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, make his own decision regarding whether to prosecute Holder for criminal contempt of Congress?
Holder said Machen “made the determination.” What does the evidence show?
Last June, President Obama invoked executive privilege to withhold documents related to the botched “Fast and Furious” gun operation, and the House of Representatives acted by citing Holder for criminal contempt of Congress. The Justice Department quickly responded by saying Holder would not be prosecuted, citing similar decisions by Justice Departments in Democratic and Republican administrations.
“I believe if we want to know what happened in Benghazi, it starts with the fact that there was not enough security. There was not enough security because the budget was cut.”
— Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), speech on the Senate floor, May 14, 2013
Sen. Boxer, in a speech that echoed an opinion article she published in The Huffington Post, this week tried to turn attention back to reductions in State Department funding that Democrats sought to highlight at the first congressional hearings into the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead.
As Boxer put it:
It takes funding to protect an embassy. It takes funding to protect a consulate. It takes funding to protect an outpost. Yes, it takes funding. Who cut the funds from embassy security? The Republicans in the House, that is who — hundreds of millions of dollars. If it were not for the Democrats, it would have been cut more, because when it came here, we stood our ground. We had to accommodate their cuts. That is how the process works. So I think the Benghazi ‘scandal’ starts with the Republicans looking in the mirror. Mirror mirror, who is the fairest of them all? They ought to ask: Mirror, mirror, who cut the funding for diplomatic security across this world for America? The answer: Republicans.
In the Huffington Post article, Boxer provided an actual figure: “The truth is — between fiscal years 2011 and 2012, the Republican-led House of Representatives sought to cut more than $450 million from President Obama’s budget request for embassy security funding.”
We had not looked closely at these claims back in the fall, but now that Boxer has revived them — and there have been two major reports and extensive testimony on the attack — it seems worthwhile to provide an assessment. There are two specific questions: Was security in Benghazi affected by the State Department budget and did Republicans cut funding in a way that affected security?
Politicians often play games with budget numbers, and so one must be careful at accepting numbers at face value. Note how Boxer asserted that House Republicans “sought to cut more than $450 million from President Obama’s budget request.” That means she is talking about the president’s proposed budget — which in any administration is often a pie-in-the-sky document.
“Obamacare is fully implemented January 1st, even though the regulations haven’t been written yet. And Brian, we’ve got 33,000 pages of regulations that they’ve already written. If we stacked it up here, it would be seven feet tall.”
— Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), speaking on “Fox and Friends,” May 13, 2013
“Implementation has also become a bureaucratic nightmare, with some 159 new government agencies, boards and programs busily enforcing the roughly 20,000 pages of rules and regulations already associated with this law.”
— Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), on the third anniversary of the law’s passage, March 22, 2013
This column has been updated
Rep. Richard Hudson this week offered such an astonishing figure — 33,000 pages of “Obamacare” regulations! — that we immediately wanted to know more.
But it turns out that Hudson got a little bit ahead of himself. An aide said that he misspoke and meant to say 13,000 pages. “Whether it is 13,000, 22,000 or 33,000, it is too many,” the aide added.
But then it turns out that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has actually tweeted a photograph of this stack of paper. By his math, the Obama administration has issued 20,000 pages of regulations “associated” with the new law.
How does this stuff get figured out?
The process the McConnell folks used is fairly simple. They went to the Web site for the Federal Register and searched for “Affordable Care Act,” the official name for the health-care law. That turned up 897 documents.
“The day after it happened, I acknowledged that this was an act of terrorism.”
— President Obama, remarks at a news conference, May 13, 2013
Once again, it appears that we must parse a few presidential words. We went through this question at length during the 2012 election, but perhaps a refresher course is in order.
Notably, during a debate with Republican nominee Mitt Romney, President Obama said that he immediately told the American people that the killing of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Libya “was an act of terror.” But now he says he called it “an act of terrorism.”
Some readers may object to this continuing focus on words, but presidential aides spend a lot of time on words. Words have consequences. Is there a difference between “act of terror” and “act of terrorism”?
Immediately after the attack, the president three times used the phrase “act of terror” in public statements:
“I first want to thank the chair of our committee, the budget committee, for doing such a terrific job in bringing us all together. My colleagues on the committee, as we all know, we worked very, very hard together in order to be able to put together a balanced budget that reflects the values of the American people, that’s fair, that’s balanced in values and approach as well as in numbers, and we did that.”
— Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), remarks on the Senate floor, May 8, 2013
A reader asked: Is the Democratic-crafted budget plan “a balanced budget,” at least in the conventional sense? Most people would interpret that phrase as meaning a plan that in theory leads to an equal level of revenues and expenditures by a given date. In other words, the federal government no longer ran deficits.
After all, House Republicans claim to have a budget that leads to balance in 10 years. Do Democrats? (Note: We take no position on whether a balanced budget is good for the economy or not. Economists differ on that issue, with some arguing that deficit spending, if properly invested, can be better for economic growth.)
It’s important to remember that these 10-year budget blueprints are more political, aspirational documents than serious financial plans. No one really knows what the economy will look like a decade from now, and so actual tax revenues and government spending in the future are heavily dependent on factors beyond politicians’ control.
From time to time, the Fact Checker writes an analytic look at news events, based on his three decades of experience covering diplomacy and politics, rather than a traditional fact check. This is one of those columns.
There have been many questions raised about the development of the administration’s talking points in the aftermath of the attack on Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead, including the U.S. ambassador. There have been allegations that the administration deliberately covered up the fact that this was a terrorist attack. We have noted before, in our extensive timeline of Benghazi statements, how long it took the president to concede that point in the midst of his reelection campaign.
But with the release of 12 versions of the talking points Friday by ABC News, perhaps there is an alternative explanation: This basically was a bureaucratic knife fight, pitting the State Department against the CIA.
In other words, the final version of the talking points may have been so wan because officials simply deleted everything that upset the two sides. So they were left with nothing.
Let’s examine the evidence for a bureaucratic explanation.
“Remember, in 2010, everybody said you can’t dare let guns go into the national parks. And of course the rapes, murders, robberies and assaults are down about 85 percent since we did that.”
— Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), speaking on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” May 9, 2013
A reader tweeted us a question about this statement, asking us to fact check it. We are happy to oblige.
@glennkesslerwpCoburn said on morning Joe that murder and rapereduced 80% in national parks after guns were allowed, can you check that?— Frank Frontignano (@frankiefronts) May 9, 2013
Coburn made his comment a day after he failed to convince the Senate to allow people to carry guns on lands managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. During that debate, he simply asserted that since the prohibition on guns in national parks was lifted by the Obama administration in early 2010, “the amount of crime in our national parks has declined.”
But on television, he attached an eye-popping figure — 85 percent — to the decline in violent crime. Could this possibly be true?
In 2009, Coburn pushed through the change in national parks by attaching an amendment to an unrelated bill on credit cards, after a federal judge had blocked a change in the rules engineered by the Bush administration. But the Obama administration did not fight hard against the measure, earning the ire of gun control groups, and it went into effect on Feb, 22, 2010.
“I was stunned. My jaw dropped. And I was embarrassed”
— Gregory Hicks, former U.S. deputy chief of mission to Libya, testifying on his reaction to U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice’s remarks on the terror attack in Benghazi, May 8, 2013
Readers who are just tuning into the Benghazi story may be a little confused about what is new — and what is not. As a reader service, here’s an effort to help readers through some of the fog of charges and countercharges that emerged at the House hearings on Wednesday.
Reports of Demonstrations
Gregory Hicks, the deputy chief of mission in Libya at the time of the attack, testified that it was clear from his perspective that this was a terrorist attack. The last words he heard from J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador who was killed in the attack, were: “Greg, we’re under attack.”
“There is also uncertainty regarding to what degree man is to blame for global warming. However, the claim that 98 percent of scientists agree that humans are the singular driver of climate change has been repeatedly discounted. This oft-cited statistic is based on an online survey with a sample size of only 77 people, and the survey didn’t even ask to what degree humans contribute to climate change.”
— Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Environment, in an opinion article, April 13, 2013
Stewart is a freshman lawmaker who ended up with a plum position: heading a House panel on the environment. In an opinion article for the Salt Lake Tribune, he struck a cautious stance on climate change, arguing that the science is “anything but settled.”
He, for instance, cited an interesting Economist article that the climate may be heating up less quickly in response to greenhouse gas emissions than previously thought. (He did not mention that the article also said “that does not mean the problem is going away.”)
For the purposes of this fact check, we will look at his claim about the 98 percent statistic, which he says “has been repeatedly discounted” and is based just on a survey of 77 people. What’s he talking about?
Stewart is referring to a survey done for the American Geophysical Union in 2009 by researchers for the University of Illinois in Chicago. Peter Doran, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences, along with former graduate student Maggie Kendall Zimmerman, in 2008 sent a simple survey with nine questions to more than 10,000 experts listed in the 2007 edition of the American Geological Institute’s directory of geoscience departments.
“I wasn’t involved in the talking points process.... As I understand it, as I’ve been told, it was a typical interagency process where staff, including from the State Department, all participated, to try to come up with whatever was going to be made publicly available, and it was an intelligence product.”
— Then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Jan. 23, 2013
This column has been updated
New information is raising questions about the development of the administration’s talking points on the deadly attack on the diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, which left four Americans, including the ambassador, dead.
Readers may recall that The Fact Checker concluded that there was something rather odd about U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice’s comments on the Sunday news shows shortly after the attack. Rice said the attack “began spontaneously” because of a reaction to a protest in Cairo sparked by a “hateful video,” and there was no indication it was “premeditated or preplanned.”
We awarded her Two Pinocchios the morning after she appeared on the shows, concluding that “the publicly available evidence stands in stark contrast to Rice’s talking points.”
The White House at the time sharply disputed that conclusion, but over time that column has held up rather well. (In an interview with congressional investigators that was released over the weekend, deputy chief of mission Gregory Hicks said “my jaw hit the floor as I watched this.”) Some readers have suggested we should boost the Pinocchio rating for Rice’s comments. Still, it is clear Rice was simply mouthing the words given to her. The bigger mystery now is who was involved in writing — and rewriting — the talking points.
The talking points have become important because, in the midst of President Obama’s reelection campaign, for a number of days they helped focus the journalistic narrative on an anti-Islam video — and away from a preplanned attack. As we noted in our timeline of administration statements, it took two weeks for the White House to formally acknowledge that Obama believed the attack was terrorism.
We also have awarded Pinocchios to Republicans for claims about Benghazi. In this column, as a reader service, we outline below some of the new disclosures, contained in a report by House Republicans and an article in the Weekly Standard, and contrast the new information with previous statements made by administration officials.
The House report contains references to specific e-mails between administration officials; the Weekly Standard then identifies who wrote the e-mails as well as various drafts of the talking points. As far as we know, the administration has not publicly denied the information about the talking points contained in the GOP report or the article.