The White House revealed that it had even deeper knowledge of the IRS scandal than it first let on when press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday that a top aide to President Obama talked with a Treasury Department official about how to break the news of the agency’s improper targeting of conservative groups.
Despite the preliminary strategy sessions between the White House and Treasury, Mr. Carney repeatedly said the White House did not know or approve of the Internal Revenue Service’s eventual plan: to plant a question at a panel discussion attended by a key IRS official.
But he acknowledged that Mark Childress, the White House deputy chief of staff, twice spoke with Treasury Department officials about the best way to let the public know that conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status had been singled out for special scrutiny and sometimes invasive questioning.
In one scenario that was discarded, Lois Lerner, the IRS official who led the agency’s tax-exemptions office at the time, would use a speech to reveal that an inspector general’s investigation had uncovered the political targeting and would publicly apologize for the untoward activity. The pair also discussed another potential method of disclosure — that acting IRS Commissioner Steve Miller would receive a question about the IG probe during congressional testimony.
Mr. Carney characterized the discussion as Treasury giving the White House a “heads up” on its plans but also portrayed it “as just part of trying to find out when and under what circumstances this information would be released, made public, and what those findings would be.”
But Mr. Carney repeatedly insisted that the White House had no knowledge of the agency’s eventual plan to plant a question at an American Bar Association conference for Ms. Lerner this month.
“It’s a nice hypothetical, but that didn’t happen,” he said.
He also largely repeated his assertion that he and Mr. Obama were kept in the dark about the IRS probe on purpose — something he said the president has since indicated was the right decision.
Mr. Carney has said that White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler first knew about the IRS inspector general’s probe in the political targeting April 24 and told other senior staff but decided not to inform the president.
That decision was made, Mr. Carney said, because the IG’s probe was not finished so it would be wrong for him to do anything that might be perceived to be meddling in the investigation’s outcome.
“The president believes that the counsel’s decision was the right one, and has faith in [Ms. Ruemmler’s] judgment on these issues,” Mr. Carney said.
Mr. Carney told reporters last week only that Ms. Ruemmler knew about the IRS probe April 24. He waited until days later to reveal that several senior White House aides, including Mr. McDonough and deputy chief of staff Mr. Childress, knew that same week.
Mr. Obama and Mr. Carney said they found out about the IRS probe from reporters May 10. Mr. Carney explained his shifting statements about who else in the White House knew before that date by telling reporters he “answered the questions that were asked of me” last week and is providing more information this week in response to additional questions.
On a separate controversy about the Justice Department’s seizure of reporters’ emails and phone records in an attempt to investigate national security leaks, Mr. Carney seemed more deliberate and assured about his response.
On Monday, news broke that the Justice Department accused a Fox News reporter of “potential criminal liability” in order to obtain a search warrant for his email. Mr. Carney said Tuesday that Mr. Obama does not believe that journalists reporting leaked classified information are committing crimes.
“If you’re asking me whether the president believes that journalists should be prosecuted for doing their jobs, the answer is no,” Mr. Carney said.
Reporters on Monday pressed Mr. Carney, the former Washington bureau chief of Time magazine, to say whether he agreed with the tactic of labeling Fox’s James Rosen as a potential criminal co-conspirator for extracting classified information with a State Department adviser who was charged later with leaking information about North Korean nuclear tests.
After the contentious exchange with reporters about the matter Monday, in which he said he “cannot comment” on whether Mr. Rosen was a potential criminal, Mr. Carney said Tuesday that he discussed it with the president.
Mr. Obama “reiterated just how important he believes it is to reporters that all of you and your colleagues are able to do your jobs in a free and open way and, as he has said, he believes there is an important balance to be found here and he thinks the questions about how that balance is being struck are entirely legitimate and he welcomes the public discussion,” Mr. Carney said.
When asked whether, as a reporter, he ever had to decide whether to publish classified information, he said he hadn’t: “Not personally.”
“It’s not about me. … As a reporter, I think I am more intimately aware of these issues than some folks,” he said.
News of the Rosen targeting broke just days after The Associated Press reported that the Justice Department had subpoenaed phone records for several of its reporters.
Meanwhile Tuesday, Sharyl Attkisson of CBS News said her home and work computers have been compromised for some time. Ms. Attkisson has been one of the few mainstream-media reporters to have aggressively pursued such stories as the botched Fast and Furious gun-running operation, and she said there may be a connection with Justice’s targeting of Fox News and AP, though she did not give any specifics.
“I think there could be some relationship between these types of things and what happened to me,” she said, adding that her suspicions have been piqued since “at least February of 2011 and I think probably a significant period of time before that.”
CBS News officials said they were investigating the compromising of her computers.
Also Tuesday, The New Yorker reported that as part of a leak investigation, the Justice Department obtained phone records for five numbers used by Fox News and two White House lines.
The report by Ryan Lizza suggests that Justice’s probe of Fox may be wider than thought.