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Why Policy Matters

Filed under: News

It sure has been a crappy few weeks for the Obama Administration, right? Starting with the Senate refusing to pass a really minimal gun control legislation – carefully crafted in a bipartisan fashion, we now have revelations of the IRS targeting tea party groups, and the Justice Department obtaining AP phone records via subpoena.

It’s funny, because one of the attacks on Obama is that he’s perpetually in campaign mode. Problem is, he wins campaigns; if he was in campaign mode, none of this stuff would be a big dealIts messaging has sucked, lately, and Congressional Democrats tend to suck, as well. 

The background noise during all of this is the right-wing’s incessant attempts to manufacture a scandal out of the 9/11/12 attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi.  Literally every single allegation-cum-conspiracy theory has been thoroughly debunked to the point now where (a) it’s palpably all about Hillary 2016; and (b) chief scandal author Darrell Issa has finally reached a last-resort argument, whereby calling the Benghazi attack an “act of terror” is an impeachable offense, because the Administration should have called it a terrorist act. I kid you not.  

The CIA and State Department’s editing and re-editing of a post-attack talking points document is not a cover-up or a scandal – it’s what diplomats and spies do. This is why the Wikileaks publication of secret diplomatic cables is, in my opinion, a bad thing. We oughtn’t broadcast what our diplomats or spies are doing. In an interesting twist, the Republicans demanding the public release of Benghazi-related information were quite outraged by the Wikileaks diplomatic cable release. 

The Republican narrative – despite all evidence to the contrary – has been that the White House intervened to make Obama look good. The evidence reveals that the CIA and State were squabbling over post-attack documents so as to provide information without compromising any extant interests or missions. 

The AP investigation and the IRS targeting are brand-new stories, the details of which are not fully hashed out, but they certainly look bad, and the Obama Administration is uniquely susceptible to outrageous criticism because of the right-wing narrative that Obama is a tinpot dictator, despite being limited to two terms and a do-nothing Congress. 

The IRS absolutely should not be targeting tea party groups or liberal groups, for that matter. But that isn’t an accurate depiction of what happened. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision, it quickly became chic to set up a tax-exempt political advocacy group. I want the IRS to look into the activities of those groups to ensure that they comply with extant regulations on maintaining tax-exempt status, just as much as I want the IRS to crack down on, e.g., tax-exempt “churches” that overtly engage in campaigning and politics. As long as it’s done in an evenhanded, non-partisan way.  The Treasury Inspector General reports that the IRS scrutinized certain 501(c)(4) applications using “inappropriate criteria”. 

Targeting tea party groups is as bad as targeting AARP, safe sex advocates, Greenpeace, the NAACP, and Emerge

In fact, a few left-wing groups were subjected to the same scrutiny as right-wing groups, and while some tea party applications for a government tax-free subsidy were delayed, only Emerge – a left-wing group – had its application denied

What’s nice is that everyone hates the IRS, Obama demanded the Treasury Secretary seek the resignation or dismissal of the acting IRS Commissioner.  

As for the phone records scandal, there is a legitimate debate to be had about government access to journalists’ source information, and the balancing of equities between investigating leaks of classified information and shield laws. But you can’t have a legitimate debate in a climate of alleged scandal.  Because this isn’t a “scandal”.  This is what law enforcement does, every day – gather information as part of an investigation using whatever legal means possible, and the law allows this when all other avenues to learn the information have been exhausted.

The AP delayed reporting the story at the request of government officials who said it would jeopardize national security. Once officials said those concerns were allayed, the AP disclosed the plot, though the Obama administration continued to request that the story be held until the administration could make an official announcement.

The May 7 story was written by reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman with contributions from reporters Kimberly Dozier, Eileen Sullivan and Alan Fram. They and their editor, Ted Bridis, were among the journalists whose April-May 2012 phone records were seized by the government.

Brennan talked about the AP story and investigation in written testimony to the Senate. “The irresponsible and damaging leak of classified information was made … when someone informed The Associated Press that the U.S. government had intercepted an IED (improvised explosive device) that was supposed to be used in an attack and that the U.S. government currently had that IED in its possession and was analyzing it,” he wrote.

He also defended the White House decision to discuss the plot afterward. “Once someone leaked information about interdiction of the IED and that the IED was actually in our possession, it was imperative to inform the American people consistent with government policy that there was never any danger to the American people associated with this al-Qaida plot,” Brennan told senators.

These are stories about tone-deaf executive branch overreach. Yet what the government did in this AP phone records case is likely completely legal. The government didn’t spy or snoop on the AP – it obtained phone records from the phone company. Under the law, the government is allowed to obtain information from third parties, and there is no 4th Amendment problem.  Furthermore, you don’t hear a lot of Republicans in Congress making noise about it – how do you demonize the mainstream media every hour of every day for years, then suddenly pivot to its defense to score a few points against Obama? The right’s animus for Obama is only matched (or exceeded) by its animus for fact-based reportage. 

This is why elections matter, this is why policy matters, and this is why legislation matters. This is why whom you send to Congress matters. 

For instance, in 2007, a bill in Congress called the “Free Flow of Information Act” would have required the DOJ to first obtain a court order before obtaining phone records or otherwise pursuing journalists’ sources to investigate criminality. Although it passed the house, it failed to make it past a Republican filibuster in the Senate to a vote. Put bluntly, Republicans killed the media shield law that would have prevented the DOJ from doing what it did to the AP. 

Benghazi? Republicans have consistently voted to de-fund the security for diplomatic missions abroad

For fiscal 2013, the GOP-controlled House proposed spending $1.934 billion for the State Department’s Worldwide Security Protection program — well below the $2.15 billion requested by the Obama administration. House Republicans cut the administration’s request for embassy security funding by $128 million in fiscal 2011 and $331 million in fiscal 2012. (Negotiations with the Democrat-controlled Senate restored about $88 million of the administration’s request.) Last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that Republicans’ proposed cuts to her department would be “detrimental to America’s national security” — a charge Republicans rejected.

Ryan, Issa and other House Republicans voted for an amendment in 2009 to cut $1.2 billion from State operations, including funds for 300 more diplomatic security positions. Under Ryan’s budget, non-defense discretionary spending, which includes State Department funding, would be slashed nearly 20 percent in 2014, which would translate to more than $400 million in additional cuts to embassy security.

So, facts matter, and policy matters, and you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. 

Oh, also this week, Congress voted for a 37th time to repeal Obamacare. So, you know, jobs & growth agenda? Not so much. 


  • Jesse Griffis

    Wow, this is possibly the web’s single-most charitable reading/defense of the last 3 major political scandals. Good job, Alan, this must have required one hell of a lot of contortion, all that mental gymnastics training sure paid off.

    • Jim_Holstun

      Wow indeed: “These are stories about tone-deaf executive branch overreach. Yet what the government did in this AP phone records case is likely completely legal.
      The government didn’t spy or snoop on the AP – it obtained phone
      records from the phone company. Under the law, the government is allowed
      to obtain information from third parties, and there is no 4th Amendment
      problem.”

      Thus Alan Bedenko affirms the chipping away of privacy rights under the administration of Bush 43 and Bush 44 (a.k.a. Barack Obama). If his mail and email are monitored without a warrant, then everything’s jake, because after all, in sending out his letters or email posts via the Post Office or an email provider, he forfeited all rights to privacy. So privacy rights are preserved except for any communication which requires a medium of some sort, which is to say, every communication whatsoever.

      All this is double OK, because congressional Republicans aren’t protesting it.

      On the plus side, Alan’s taste in barbecue (Suzy Q’s) is faultless.

      • Jim, I didn’t endorse the legality of the seizure of phone records. I merely stated the fact of legality.

        Indeed, the point of the piece, as evidence by its title, is that the policy is broken and needs fixing. We can hardly fault the government from acting within the bounds of flawed laws. Please do read it again.

    • tl;dr I mock the truth because it doesn’t comport with conventional wisdom.

  • No matter how much the Democrat and Republican parties try to convince us, there aren’t only two camps in this country. The fact that Republicans aren’t fans of the media and have classically backed this kind of overreach does not make this a non-issue. This is part of a larger narrative of presidents of both parties expanding executive power and cracking down on government transparency.

    It seems disingenuous not to be outraged when the executive branch acts wrong (and by this I mean doing the wrong thing, not necessarily breaking the law) because Congress has also acted wrong. It is certainly telling that people are trying to make hay out of the Benghazi thing and not the (endlessly more egregious and more terrifying) AP thing, but that does not equal points for Obama.

    • I never suggested it “equals points for Obama”. What I’m saying is that in the AP case, the DOJ likely acted well within the bounds of the law – a law that could have been tightened and changed had Republicans not filibustered it as part of their “stop Obama” agenda. As for the IRS matter, it’s bad and it’s been dealt with, but I think it’s important to remind people that only one group was denied 501(c)(4) status during this period of scrutiny, and it was a left-wing group.

      • Right, but my point is that while he may have been acting within the bounds of the law, just because it was legal doesn’t mean it was right. It’s important to consider this as part of a trend of dismantling the idea of due process and transparency (which, I’m sure you agree, are pretty important chunks of a democracy) that includes extrajudicial assassination of American citizens, secret FISA courts, warrantless NSA wiretapping, collusion with telecom companies to infringe on privacies of which people have a reasonable expectation, increased crackdown on whistleblowers under the Espionage Act, etc.

        This shouldn’t be an issue of Democrats vs. Republicans, but of right vs. wrong.

      • That’s why I brought up in the title that “policy matters”, and linked especially to the shield law that the Republicans refused to bring to the floor of the Senate for a vote because of their “fuck Obama” platform.

      • I agree fully with the title; on these issues I think that Obama has been pursuing bad policy. While the Republicans blocked shield law in ’07 (which was before Obama was President), while Obama was in office, he actively sought to limit the shield law for matters of “national security.”

  • Re: Benghazi, I think this is the rare case where the Republican political leadership is out of touch with it’s base, as what they are complaining about is not what I hear from the tinfoil hat crowd. When the Benghazi thing broke last September, I predicted it would have legs, and I was right, but for the wrong reasons. You are right, Alan – there is no story about diplomats and spies trying to get the facts right, and figuring it out as they go. But in this case, I think the real story has been lost, though you allude to it at the end. The base is complaining that the military was not sent in to defend the consulate. They complain that Navy fighters were in the Med but “called off” by politicians. They wonder where the Marines were, to guard the consulate, if this was in fact a State Dept facility (and not a CIA safe house). If you cut 10% of the State Sept budget, I think its fair to assume that you might take a hit on the security at the Uruguay consulate, but maybe you’d fully staff security in a war zone? The fire that should be producing the smoke here is the security and military angle – I haven’t met a single non-politician right winger who gives two hoots about emails and press releases, except how it relates to whether the CinC told the Navy to stand down and not defend Americans in harm’s way. As far as I know (and please tell me if I’m wrong), that part of the story hasn’t been run to ground, because we’re arguing about cables.

    • Here’s what Robert Gates had to say about the military angle,

      We don’t have a ready force standing by in the Middle East. Despite all the turmoil that’s going on, with planes on strip alert, troops ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. And so getting somebody there in a timely way – would have been very difficult, if not impossible. And frankly, I’ve heard, “Well, why didn’t you just fly a fighter jet over and try and scare ‘em with the noise or something?” Well, given the number of surface to air missiles that have disappeared from Gaddafi’s arsenals, I would not have approved sending an aircraft, a single aircraft – over Benghazi under those circumstances.

      With respect to sending in special forces or a small group of people to try and provide help, based on everything I have read, people really didn’t know what was going on in Benghazi contemporaneously. And to send some small number of special forces or other troops in without knowing what the environment is, without knowing what the threat is, without having any intelligence in terms of what is actually going on on the ground, I think, would have been very dangerous. And personally, I would not have approved that because we just don’t it’s sort of a cartoonish impression of military capabilities and military forces. The one thing that our forces are noted for is planning and preparation before we send people in harm’s way. And there just wasn’t time to do that.”

      FWIW

      • Well, with respect to the former SecDef, we do have a force standing by in the Middle East – they are Marine Exped Units (MEUs) on ships, and that’s exactly what they are for. He may have been reluctant to use them, but they exist.

        Also, FWIW, this is what the righty crowd uses as proof – the firing of the 4-star general and Navy Admiral commanding forces in the region, that said they could help and then were relieved. http://www.thegatewaypundit.com/2012/10/was-africom-general-replaced-for-his-efforts-to-save-benghazi-security-officials/

        I am suspicious, but Snopes calls the claim “unresolved” – it would be nice to know what happened.

    • The SecDef and Administration have been quite clear on this, both in statements and testimony. There was no MEU prepared and within deployment range.

      http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/04/world/africa/benghazi-attack-raises-doubts-about-us-abilities-in-region.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

      But other military forces were too far away or could not be mobilized in time. The closest AC-130 gunship, a devastating and accurate weapon against insurgents in urban areas, was in Afghanistan, a senior official said.

      There are no armed drones within range of Libya. The closest fly out of Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, and were not in range of Benghazi. There was no Marine expeditionary unit — a large seaborne force with its own helicopters — in the Mediterranean Sea. American F-16 fighters in Europe were not on alert, and General Ham concluded they would not have been useful in a confused fight in a major Arab city.

      Acting on Mr. Obama’s order, the staff of the Joint Chiefs presented the options. Around 6:30 p.m., oral instructions were given for the units to get ready to deploy and formal deployment orders were issued after 8:30 p.m. The early reports in Washington noted that Ambassador Stevens was missing, and a major worry was that a hostage-rescue mission might be needed.

      The Pentagon sent the Delta Force commandos to the Sigonella base in Sicily, to put them in position to deploy to Libya. Two 50-strong platoons of specially trained Marines, from Rota, Spain, were ordered to get ready to deploy, too.

      Another option approved was to send the European Command’s quick-reaction force, which consists of about four dozen Special Forces soldiers and other specialists. But it was in the middle of a mission in Croatia. Elements of the team began leaving for Sigonella by 9 p.m., and the unit completed its deployment to Sicily shortly after noon the next day, a Pentagon official said. By then the 30 or so surviving Americans, and the bodies of their four colleagues, were in Tripoli.

      With the region still in turmoil, the European Command’s quick-reaction team was sent on to Tunis. One of the Marine platoons was sent to Tripoli to protect the United States Embassy there. The Delta Force commandos, having arrived too late to help, flew back home, Pentagon officials said.