President Obama did not help himself at today's Rose Garden press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Tyyip Erdogan. For the second time in one week, Obama answered a limited number of questions from pre-selected reporters while standing next to a foreign leader. Click over to Katie's post for more on his slippery answer about the White House's knowledge of IRS malfeasance, and his decision not to endorse a special prosecutor for the investigation. The president also addressed the Benghazi and DOJ/AP scandals, offering unsatisfactory answers on both:
Benghazi Scandal - Given the limited opportunities for questions (I believe I counted just two American reporters who were called upon), the president was not asked about any aspect of Benghazi -- including the latest revelations about the scrubbed and politicized talking points. Interestingly, however, the president twice raised the issue unprompted; once during his opening remarks, and later in passing. In his prepared comments, the president said his administration is taking action to ensure that another Benghazi never happens again. He spoke of the need for "improved warning capabilities," full funding for diplomatic security, and better training so our military can respond "lightning quick" to threats. These are worthy ideas, but none of them apply to what happened in Benghazi:
[Warning Capabilities] - The State Department was warned repeatedly about the threats in Benghazi, so warning wasn't the problem. The team on the ground in Libya sent numerous, urgent requests for enhanced security assets, all of which were denied or ignored. The intelligence agencies had also issued warnings about the deteriorating security situation in Benghazi, a fact that was eliminated from administration talking points for overtly political reasons.
[Full Funding] - The State Department and the administration's own "independent" review board both concluded that funding shortfalls played no role in Benghazi. The Washington Post has rated claims to the contrary a "Three Pinocchio" falsehood.
[Military Readiness] - Two Marines held umbrellas for the heads of state in the Rose Garden today. That's two more Marines than were stationed in Benghazi on 9/11. While it's definitely true that no military assets were deployed "lightning quick" on 9/11/12, that outcome doesn't appear to be a training issue. A small force in Tripoli was twice ordered to stand down, and an elite team in Europe never got off the ground either. The attack lasted eight hours.
Later on, Obama worked Benghazi into another answer, noting how dangerous the situation in Benghazi was and is. This was an odd decision on his part because it didn't directly apply to the question he was asked, but it did underscore the security problems on the ground -- for which his administration has yet to account.
DOJ / AP Phone Records Scandal - The president -- much like his Attorney General, in whom he again expressed "full confidence" -- refused to comment on the Justice Department's tactics in the Associated Press case. He gave a lengthy answer about the seriousness of national security leaks, which everyone understands. The issue in this particular case is the broadness of the net cast, the length of time the monitoring occurred, and the total secrecy of the operation. Obama wouldn't say whether he thought the DOJ overreached, which is the strong consensus across virtually the entire field of journalism and First Amendment watchdog groups. The president also failed to mention that in the specific case at issue, the Associated Press had agreed to play ball with the government and delayed publishing their story until the threat passed. Eric Holder has claimed that he doesn't know much of anything about this particular investigation because he recused himself from it at some point (he can't quite recall when that was, and it wasn't done in writing). He did, however, assert that the leak was one of the most serious he'd ever seen in his entire career. The Washington Post raises reasons to doubt Holder's characterization:
For five days, reporters at the Associated Press had been sitting on a big scoop about a foiled al-Qaeda plot at the request of CIA officials. Then, in a hastily scheduled Monday morning meeting, the journalists were asked by agency officials to hold off on publishing the story for just one more day. The CIA officials, who had initially cited national security concerns in an attempt to delay publication, no longer had those worries, according to individuals familiar with the exchange. Instead, the Obama administration was planning to announce the successful counterterrorism operation that Tuesday. AP balked and proceeded to publish that Monday afternoon. Its May 2012 report is now at the center of a controversial and broad seizure of phone records of AP reporters’ home, office and cellphone lines. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the unauthorized disclosure about an intelligence operation to stop al-Qaeda from detonating explosives aboard a U.S. airliner was among the most serious leaks he could remember, and justified secretly obtaining records from a handful of reporters and editors over a span of two months.
Now, some members of Congress and media advocates are questioning why the administration viewed the leak that led to the May 7 AP story as so grave. The president’s top counterterrorism adviser at the time, John O. Brennan, had appeared on “Good Morning America” the following day to trumpet the successful operation. He said that because of the work of U.S. intelligence, the plot did not pose an active threat to the American public. Holder said this week that the unauthorized disclosure “put the American people at risk.”
First, the AP agreed to hold the story until the CIA concluded that it no longer posed a risk. Then the administration openly crowed about the successful operation. Then the DOJ initiated an unprecedented dragnet to find the AP's source, monitoring dozens of journalists' work and personal phone records to do so -- without even attempting to work with the news organization, which had just been helpful to them. Holder says this story posed a grave risk -- one of the gravest he'd ever seen -- to American security. So why did the CIA tell journalists that any potential threat had passed, and why did the administration reveal the bust publicly? Also, per the WaPo piece, why was the CIA negotiating over "scoop" time windows with the AP, even after they concluded threat was over? Was the AP punished for simply for stepping on the White House's big announcement the next day? That smells like pure politics. The AP's CEO asks more important questions here. The president has "compete confidence" in this man?
AG Holder says he did not inform WH he recused himself in @ap case, did not do so in writing and cannot say when he did so.— Kelly O'Donnell (@KellyO) May 15, 2013