Breaking down Obama's bad week
    President Obama speaks to incoming acting IRS commissioner Daniel Werfel. Image from the official White House flickr. Licensed as U.S. Government Work.
    President Obama speaks to incoming acting IRS commissioner Daniel Werfel. Image from the official White House flickr. Licensed as U.S. Government Work.

    This past week was certainly an exciting one. I don’t mean the end of The Office or Kanye’s ridiculous marketing campaign and subsequent Saturday Night Live performance. Those were both fun and enjoyable, but not particularly suprising. Kanye's decision to project his face across the world is only suprising because he did not try to project it on the moon.

    No, what made this last week interesting for political junkies was the fact that on Monday, it seemed as though President Obama could be facing his worst week ever. Three separate controversies about Benghazi, the IRS and the Associated Press looked as though they each had the potential to seriously damage the Obama administration, if not totally topple it. One week later, though, and the administration is still standing. With a lower than average number of Americans following these stories, here is a brief rundown of who was accused of doing what to whom and how it all played out.

    What problems did Obama face this week?

    The Obama administration was doing damage control on three controversies this week. The first had to do with last September’s attack on the American diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya. The White House and the Department of State were accused of orchestrating a cover-up about the nature of the attack in order to protect Obama’s chances of reelection.

    The second story began when the Internal Revenue Service made a shocking apology, acknowledging that certain political groups applying for tax-exempt status were automatically flagged for further internal review. The third and final controversy centers on a seizure of telephone records for Associated Press employees by the Department of Justice.

    Weren’t we done with Benghazi months ago?

    Yes and no. Popular interest in the attack waned after the election, with a brief spike in late January when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was questioned by Congress about the attacks. From February to April, most media sources reported little to no information about Benghazi, since no new information seemed to be forthcoming.

    Conservative media outlets, on the other hand, never dropped the story. Outlets like the WorldNetDaily, the Heritage Foundation and The Washington Times clung doggedly to the idea that something about the Obama administration’s handling of Benghazi was wrong. The major claim (aside from the always useful allegation that there were “unanswered questions”) was that the White House concealed the nature of the terrorist attack on Benghazi to keep Obama from looking weak on terrorism. Until a couple of weeks ago, the mainstream media did not really take these claims seriously.

    What made Benghazi relevant again?

    On May 10, Jon Karl of ABC News published a story, using quotes from e-mails sent by Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes and State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland, that showed the State Department doctoring the “talking points” on Benghazi in order to protect their own department.

    The original story included a quote from Nuland referencing her “building’s leadership”, which was used as evidence that top-level State officials knew about the cover-up. Rhodes then chimed in instructing intelligence agencies to “reflect all agency equities, including those of the State Department”, which seemed to imply that the White House was intervening to protect the Department of State. It was as close to a smoking gun as anyone had expected in the Benghazi story.

    The White House engaged in a cover-up about Benghazi and no one’s been impeached yet?

    Part of it is that the White House actually engaged in decent damage control. Since the e-mails sent soon after Benghazi were at the center of the claims surrounding the alleged cover-up, the White House released 100 pages of e-mails that included the “smoking gun” from Rhodes.

    If you look at the ABC News story now, you will notice that the Rhodes quote is not there. This is because it was inaccurate. Rhodes made no specific reference to the State Department’s concerns, and there is no evidence that the White House engaged in a cover-up (though the final talking points were altered from their original form, most changes were made by intelligence agencies). The e-mails leaked to Karl were actually doctored by Republican sources.

    Unless Darrell Issa and his House Oversight Committee bring new evidence to light, there was no White House cover-up. This has prompted Republicans, led by Sen. Rand Paul, to switch targets to Hillary Clinton, perhaps in hopes of hurting her election chances in 2016. That has also turned out to be a non-starter. In short, there is not currently a Benghazi scandal.

    What happened with the IRS?

    In 2010, employees at an IRS processing facility in Cincinnati faced a much larger workload than they could handle. Part of their work involved assessing applications for 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status, which is offered to groups that work for “social welfare” and the public good. Groups that have political work as their primary aim are not allowed to receive 501(c)(4) status.

    The mistake these employees made was decide to automatically target groups whose applications included keywords like “Tea Party”, “patriot”, or “9/12” (the name of Glenn Beck’s branch of the Tea Party movement) for further investigation. This was the employees way of doing triage on the applications, to help them focus on the applications that were most likely to cause later problems. Though the aim of these employees was to flag groups that looked primarily political for further review, they just ended up interrogating a lot of conservative groups in ways that violated IRS policy. Groups that triggered this targeting were made to undergo almost ludicrously thorough and invasive examinations, including requests that they reveal their donors. This was wildly inappropriate.

    However, since the policy originated in a group of low-level IRS employees, and was not known to the president until very recently, there is no real scandal here for Obama. Also, since most people in Washington agreesthat most 501(c)(4) groups do not actually deserve their tax-exempt status, this whole thing is a little ridiculous.

    What about the Associated Press?

    Back in May of 2012, the AP broke a story about a foiled terror plot in Yemen. The story came a day before official reports about the plot were released, which indicated to the government that there was a leak. This leak apparently cost the United States a valuable informant inside Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, so the Department of Justice went hunting for answers.

    Unfortunately for the Obama administration, there are two things that are almost always true about government leak-hunting. First, they very rarely lead to prosecutions (only three before Obama, six under his administration), and only once have they led to a successful trial. Second, the government almost always looks bad during a leak probe. The media is very good at spinning a message, and will cast journalists as David versus the government’s Goliath.

    The Department of Justice made things worse than a regular leak probe by gathering two months of phone records in offices that employ over 100 journalists, an irresponsibly large dragnet that does not seem justified by the investigation. The Associated Press, backed by supporters from both sides of the aisle) contends that this seizure was a gross abuse of governmental authority, and violated the privacy of those journalists who were caught in the dragnet. The unfortunate fact for the AP is that the government seems to have been well within its legal bounds here. Phone companies can actually hand over your phone records with or without your consent or a warrant, and the precedent seems to support the idea that your e-mails are equally unsafe.

    Furthermore, the only thing that explicitly protects journalists from inappropriate government surveillance is a Justice Department policy that says FBI agents must seek the Attorney General’s approval for a media subpoena. Journalists have no real legal protection from government investigations like this, under the Supreme Court's current understanding of the First Amendment.

    The government’s actions on the AP scandal were a worrying overreach of governmental authority, but they were not actually illegal. And since Holder recused himself from the initial investigation and Obama seems to have had no direct involvement, any heads that roll over this will come from government officials you have never heard of. This is a minor scandal at best.

    How will these controversies affect the Obama administration?

    At the moment, they have not done anything. Benghazi will continue to be a story, but that will be true as long as Hillary remains competitive for the 2016 election. As for the IRS and AP scandals, they may lead to some resignations and more federal protections for journalists, but they are unlikely lead to seroius reforms or extensive policy debates.

    As for Obama himself, his fate is still in the balance. His approval rating has held steady, but this may be the economy holding his numbers up. With a majority of Americans saying that Benghazi and the IRS warrant further investigation, conditions are ripe for a sustained scandal season. This is not to say that Obama is doomed; what happens over the next few weeks hinges on public opinion and media coverage. These controversies may lack substance, but  the spin could still get Obama in the end.


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