LAMBRO: Setting the scandal tone at the top

The president’s denial of responsibility isn’t credible

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Barack Obama’s second term may be remembered more for his scandals than for anything else he’s done thus far in his troubled presidency.

It’s hard enough trying to put out one fire, but the White House now has three fires burning out of control at once — igniting a torrent of investigations on Capitol Hill, a criminal investigation in the Justice Department and the resignation of the man who ran the Internal Revenue Service.

The scandal over the Obama administration’s handling — and apparent cover-up — of last year’s al Qaeda-driven attack on our consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that led to the killings of our ambassador and three other Americans is showing no signs of going away.

It began with questions about why the desperate pleas for added security from U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens went unheeded at Mr. Obama’s State Department. Then it morphed into the White House’s dubious claim that the killings resulted from a protest that just got out of hand. It turned into something a great deal more sinister when the administration’s talking points went to great lengths to downplay, or even refute, that this was a terrorist attack by an al Qaeda-affiliated group.

Days went by before the White House could admit the Benghazi assault was a terrorist act. Any admission that al Qaeda was involved came even later as the scandal’s fires intensified. More recently, a State Department official told a House hearing he knew it was a terrorist action from Day One.

Getting information from the White House has been like pulling teeth. At a news conference this week, Mr. Obama dismissed Republicans’ criticism about the administration’s multiple explanations of the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attacks as nothing more than a political “sideshow.”

That dismissive counterattack ranks with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s insensitive, “What difference, at this point, does it make?” remark at a Senate hearing into the killings and their aftermath.

Then on Wednesday, Mr. Obama's administration grudgingly released what GOP leaders were seeking — 100 pages of emails that revealed multiple, heavily laundered drafts of its talking points about what happened.

The emails revealed that the explanations went through a dozen revisions, showing that the State Department was more concerned with how the talking points would play on Capitol Hill, especially among their Republican critics.

Dropped from the draft, for example, were references to the CIA’s early warnings about potential terrorist violence at the U.S. Consulate.

Victoria Nuland, who was then the State Department’s spokeswoman, emailed on the evening of Sept. 14 that the agency’s warning “could be abused by members [of Congress] to beat up the State Department so why do we want to feed that, either?”

Administration officials also resisted any reference that the terrorist attackers included the Islamist extremist group Ansar al-Sharia that is closely affiliated with al Qaeda. A chief political claim in Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign at the time was that al Qaeda had been “decimated,” while the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate suggested otherwise.

“Why do we want [Capitol] Hill to be fingering Ansar al-Sharia, when we aren’t doing that ourselves,” Ms. Nuland wrote. The reference to Ansar al-Sharia was dropped.

The more recent scandal over the Justice Department’s unprecedented, secret seizure of The Associated Press’ phone records strikes at the heart of the Bill of Rights and freedom of the press under the Constitution’s First Amendment.

In this case, the White House was directly involved in the administration’s efforts to head off publication of an AP exclusive about a foiled al Qaeda plot to blow up a U.S. passenger jet.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who personally signed off on the decision to examine the phone records of the AP’s reporters and editors, said the story’s release endangered the nation’s security. Emerging details suggest that is not even remotely true.

During a series of meetings between AP editors and the government about plans to release the story, the CIA tried to hold up the story. At a meeting on May 7, 2012, “CIA officials reported that national security concerns were ‘no longer an issue,’ ” The Washington Post reported Thursday.

Nevertheless, the White House, looking for any political advantage it could find in the midst of Mr. Obama’s campaign, said it wanted to put out its own version first, and offered to let AP release its story a few minutes before the White House announcement. AP flatly rejected the offer and published its exclusive.

Mr. Holder’s claim this week that the AP’s disclosure “put the American people at risk” has absolutely zero credibility. The day after AP ran with its story, John O. Brennan, then the White House’s counterterrorism adviser, went on TV to say the plot posed no active threat to the American public.

The administration’s seizure of the AP’s private phone records to find out its sources was a petulant act of revenge for not getting its way — and a chilling warning to the Washington news media not to dig too deeply into the administration’s activities — or else.

It’s clear the West Wing is at the center of this scandal that may well be headed to the courts. Only tyrants think they can thumb their nose at the Constitution and ride roughshod over a free press.

The Nixonian use of the Internal Revenue Service to punish and persecute Mr. Obama’s political opponents may be the worst of these abuses because it strikes at the heart of our democratic, political system.

These scandals will define Mr. Obama’s presidency throughout his second term. Hearings are lined up as far as the eye can see, and if there is any justice left in this government, the perpetrators will “go to jail,” as House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, suggested Wednesday.

The big questions of who is to blame and how far up the chain of command it goes remains to be answered.

The president denies all responsibility in any of this, but Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, says, “the president bears responsibility for what his government officials can and should do.”

As Mr. Romero says, “The tone is set at the top.” It’s time to come clean, Mr. President.

Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and contributor to The Washington Times.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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