The Sunday shows left no doubt that we’re now headed for another season of Beltway scandal feasting. Republican officials hammered the Obama administration over its handling of Benghazi and the burgeoning IRS scandal, and with multiple hearings on both fronts set for the near future, we’re looking at a rerun of the 1990s.
The IRS story is serious business, and I fully support a complete investigation to get to the bottom of it. However, on Benghazi, it’s clear that basic facts are being submerged and that journalistic shorthand risks conveying a too-simplistic picture to the public. Case in point: Ron Fournier’s piece today, which is sure to get some attention. Fournier argues that Benghazi and the IRS are creating a “perfect storm” that is “threatening Obama’s credibility.” Fournier describes the Benghazi story this way:
On Benghazi, the president’s U.N. ambassador said five days after the Libya attack that the incident grew out of a street protest rather than a terrorist attack. Caught fudging the facts in the middle of a presidential campaign, a race in which Obama’s anti-terrorism record was a major selling point, the White House blamed Ambassador Susan Rice’s statement on “talking points” concocted by the CIA in virtual isolation.
Obama’s team stuck with that story until the truth was exposed amid a GOP congressional investigation. Emails leaked to news organizations last week show that both the White House and State Department were directly involved in scrubbing the CIA talking points of any mention of past threats and al-Qaida involvement. That is the exact opposite of what the Obama White House had claimed. Inexplicably, White House spokesman Jay Carney refused late Friday to acknowledge the contradiction.
For all I know, Fournier is right that the White House may suffer a severe credibility blow amid these stories. But his characterization of Benghazi goes too far, and doesn’t make a clear enough distinction between what is known and what isn’t. By claiming that the White House and State Department “were directly involved in scrubbing the CIA talking points of any mention of past threats and al-Qaida involvement,” Fournier is implicitly giving weight to one side of the argument (the GOP’s), failing to adequately represent the administration’s position, and submerging important facts about this whole drama.
The term “scrubbing” that Fournier employs is being widely used by news orgs, but it is loaded language, one that essentially conveys as fact the notion that the talking points were changed solely for political reasons — exactly what the GOP is arguing. But the administration has argued that they purged the talking points of any mention of Al Qaida because it didn’t want to get too far ahead of what was known or to prejudice the ongoing investigation. Perhaps the White House is lying, and perhaps not, but the basic situation is that we don’t know who is right. The term “scrubbing,” however, suggests otherwise. If folks are going to imply that the talking points were scrubbed for political reasons alone, they need to explain why the administration’s justification in their view is not credible.
It’s true that an email from State spokesperson Victoria Nuland does suggest that the references to previous attacks were at least partly motivated by a worry over appearances. But experienced Beltway reporters have pointed out that this could represent little more than pushback amid bureaucratic infighting over CIA efforts to preempt blame. Savvy Beltway writers who are well aware that this is very likely what happened need to reckon with it.
What’s more, write-ups of the Benghazi story need to supply key context. First: At no point do the talking points ever claim that the intel community believed this was a pre-planned terror attack. The initial, unedited talking point claims the attacks evolved out of spontaneous protests, and says extremists with ties to Al-Qaida “participated” in the attacks. That assessment was certainly watered down in later talking points, but the notion that this was a pre-planned terror attack was never in them at all. This suggests the administration, in its early discussion of the attacks, actually didn’t divert in a big way from the intel community’s initial assessment — contra the suggestion otherwise from Fournier and many others. People who are skeptical of the administration’s handling of this need to reckon more directly with what the initial talking point actually said.
Those who don’t buy the administration’s justification for the watering down that did take place — that the administration didn’t want to get out ahead of what was actually known — need to explain why this is not believable. And they also need to tell their readers that interagency rewriting of talking points is a common occurrence, and may actually be desirable in situations where little is known and there are potential downsides in publicly sharing unconfirmed assessments.
To be clear, I absolutely agree with Fournier that the White House was initially wrong — or perhaps even actively misled — about the degree of State’s involvement in the rewriting of the talking points. This does damage the White House’s case, and it should be pressed to account for it. But beyond this, what we really need here is a serious effort to separate what is known from what isn’t. The noise of scandal will grow very loud in the weeks ahead, and the temptation to resort to shorthand and loaded language, and to elide crucial context, will be powerful. Just as happened in the 1990s.
* Robert Gates brushes off GOP Benghazi criticism: A key moment from the Sunday shows: Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pushed back hard on GOP criticism of the Obama administration’s handling of the Banghazi attacks, saying he would handled them just as the administration did: “I would not have approved sending an aircraft, a single aircraft, over Benghazi under those circumstances.”
Gates said he could not speak to criticism of security lapses, but he flatly dismissed the notion of any cover-up. Gates’ comments, in effect, dismiss key parts of this “scandal” wholesale.
* GOP Senators dismiss “impeachment” over Benghazi: Also from the Sunday shows: Senators John McCain and Susan Collins both pushed back yesterday on Republicans who are floating the idea of impeachment over Benghazi, noting that they didn’t support such a step. However, both reiterated that they believe the charges are serious and merit further scrutiny.
Note how delicate and careful McCain and Collins were in declining to endorse impeachment, as if this is a difficult position to take — perhaps a suggestion of the degree to which the notion that Benghazi will hasten the downfall of the Obama presidency is genuinely taking hold among the GOP base.
* The extremism of “gun rights” groups: The Chicago Tribune has a well reported piece on the world of “straw purchasing,” which reveals how it’s a lot easier for these purchasers to buy guns for prohibited people without ever getting caught than it might otherwise be, thanks to loopholes in the law. Authorities are hoping to require people who lose guns to report it within 72 hours — making it easier to limit the practice.
Naturally this idea is opposed by the NRA. Indeed, the few Republicans who were willing to embrace the anti-trafficking piece on the federal level were attacked by “gun rights” groups with ads showing them morphing into Obama.
* The IRS scandal deepens: The Post reports that the IRS’s scrutiny of conservative and Tea Party groups was broader than previously thought, and included a focus on groups who “criticize how the country is being run,” which will give a major boost to those calling for a full blown investigation. This, from a Congressional aide with knowledge of an IRS inspector general’s report on the targeting of groups, is key:
Of the 298 groups selected for special scrutiny, according to the congressional aide, 72 had “tea party” in their title, 13 had “patriot” and 11 had “9/12.”
* Why IRS scandal is good politics for GOP: The New York Times overview of the scandal explains the political benefits for Republicans:
Since last year’s elections, Republicans in Congress have struggled for traction on their legislative efforts, torn between conservatives who drove the agenda after their 2010 landslide and new voices counseling a shift in course to reflect President Obama’s re-election and the loss of Republican seats in the House and the Senate.
But the accusations of I.R.S. abuse are sure to fuel an effort that appears to be uniting dispirited Republicans and their conservative political base: investigating Mr. Obama and his administration. Republicans are pushing a portrayal of an administration overreaching its authority and punishing its enemies.
* Gabriel Gomez, outsider? Dems are circulating this column by the Boston Globe’s Adrian Walker which argues that the GOP Senate candidate’s issues on taxes go well beyond his $280,000 tax break on his home and include the degree to which he may have benefited from the “carried interest” loophole. How much he may have profited is unclear from his disclosure form, Walker notes, which will likely encourage Dems to amplify calls for more transparency from Gomez. Sound familiar?
* No, the Oregon study does not demolish case for Medicaid: Jonathan Cohn takes another whack at conservative critics who claim that recent Oregon study badly undercuts the case for Medicaid or its expansion. As Cohn notes, the study does not conclusively show by any means that recipients’ health didn’t improve; at any rate, increased financial security — which the study did find — is absolutely a key goal of such social programs.
* And support for same-sex marriage solidifies: Welcome news from Gallup, which finds that support for marriage equality has now polled at over 50 percent for the third consecutive survey, leading to this conclusion:
Same-Sex Marriage Support Solidifies Above 50% in U.S.
While solid majorities of independents and moderates (and even larger majorities among Dems) favor gay marriage, only 26 percent of Republicans and 28 percent of conservatives support it — again underscoring GOP and conservative isolation on the issue.