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White House spokesman Carney faces his toughest challenge yet

- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 12, 2013

Jay Carney has said he was looking for a new challenge when he made his decision to leave his job as the Washington bureau chief for Time magazine to become President Obama's White House swwpokesman.

Challenge? Last week, the press secretary got his wish.

Mr. Carney on Friday faced a room full of skeptical reporters and the toughest, most relentless questioning of his White House tenure.

The administration had wanted to focus on an upbeat event pegged to Mother's Day that would begin a summerlong promotion of the president's health care overhaul.

Instead, the president's communications team, led by Mr. Carney, was hit with a double whammy: damaging revelations from whistleblowers at Wednesday's Benghazi hearing on Capitol Hill, as well as news that Internal Revenue Service officials in Ohio admitted to targeting conservative groups for special scrutiny.

White House officials knew early on it was going to be a rough day — and they took time to prepare.

A briefing originally scheduled for just after noon was rescheduled three times before eventually being held just before 4 p.m. Reporters patiently waited, milling about in the press briefing room and in their workspace beyond.

Then the news broke that Mr. Carney and his press team had held a secret, background briefing for a select group of reporters on Benghazi.

Word spread quickly on Twitter as angry members of the White House press corps sounded off about not being invited and previous GOP press secretaries scolded Mr. Carney for engaging in undemocratic favoritism on such a difficult news day for the administration.

"Time Magazine reporter Jay Carney would have been the 1st person to object to how the WH is handling the press today," tweeted Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary for President George W. Bush and fielded Mr. Carney's questions when he was a reporter.

When the public news conference finally took place Friday afternoon, Mr. Carney faced a 58-minute barrage of questions, the vast majority of which focused on Benghazi or the IRS' political targeting.

Until Friday's outburst, many White House reporters had dismissed the story as a partisan dust-up without any real legs and hadn't really pressed the issue.

Richard Benedetto, a retired White House correspondent and columnist for USA Today and a professor of journalism at American University, said up until last week, Mr. Carney had successfully redirected questions about Benghazi to the Department of Defense or the State Department.

"I think there's more to it than that," Mr. Benedetto said. "It's a legitimate story to be investigated by any reporter deeded to the White House beat."

But with the new details and revelations that emerged from last week's hearing, some reporters feel misled by the White House — and Mr. Carney — and now are determined to push back.

Still, Mr. Carney remained calm and poised during Friday's grilling — at least outwardly, thanking reporters for their questions.

And with a series of semantic contortions, he steadfastly stood by his previous comments denying White House and State Department involvement in what emails and testimony now show was an effort to downplay terrorism as a motive for the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate.

Mr. Carney previously has said the intelligence community alone crafted the "talking points" that erroneously characterized the attacks as springing out of a spontaneous response by demonstrators to an anti-Islam video made in the U.S.

United Nations Ambassador Susan E. Rice infamously used the talking points when she went on the Sunday morning news shows after the attack. The administration later acknowledged there was no protest — that it was a planned terrorist attack.

After complaints from the State Department about the substance of the talking points, they were subsequently changed 12 times and stripped of references to al Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia.

But the White House, Mr. Carney insisted, only changed one word in the talking points document — the word "consulate" to "diplomatic post."

Emails show, though, that numerous agencies and officials engaged in the discussion about editing the talking points — including State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, who wrote that her "building leadership" had concerns about openly acknowledging earlier warnings of the dangers of Islamic extremists in Benghazi.

Such revelations, she wrote, "could be abused by members of Congress to beat the State Department for not paying attention to [CIA] warnings."

The emails also show that Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser, promised senior administration officials would meet at the White House to resolve still-lingering concerns about the talking points before Mrs. Rice went on the talk shows.

Confronted with these facts, Mr. Carney continued to insist that the talking points were a product of the intelligence community because the CIA had "signed off" on them.

"[There] was a process where there was an effort underway — an interagency process," he said.

When pressed, he later called the editing an "iterative process" where "the various issues were discussed about what could be or should be said publicly, what we know, what we're just speculating about, and that process involved a whole bunch of agencies."

After enduring nearly an hour of explanations and a discussion of the definition of the word "change," reporters didn't seem convinced.

"When you said that Republicans were being political about it, is it not also political to say we want to keep something out of the talking points because we might be criticized by members of Congress? Is that not political motivation now?" one reporter asked.

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