Making sense of the Benghazi, IRS and AP scandals

Note: In this post, I’m more interested in analyzing the evidence regarding the scandals rather than attacking the Obama administration.

The interest in the handling of the Benghazi attacks spiked with the testimony of the so-called “whistle-blowers.” Republicans and the right-wing media lashed out at the Obama administration accusing it of misleading the public. The subsequent revelations of targeting of conservative groups by the IRS, and seizure of AP journalists’ phone records by the Department of Justice lead to even more uproar. In such cases, it’s important to not get carried away by hype and take a look at the facts in an objective nonpartisan manner. So, let’s try to understand what’s going on.

The attacks in Benghazi
The US diplomatic mission in Libya was attacked on Sept. 11, 2012 (the 11th anniversary of 9/11 attacks), resulting in the death of four Americans, including the Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. Some days later, Susan Rice, the UN ambassador appeared on several TV shows (including CBS’s Face the Nation, NBC’s Meet the Press and CNN’s State of The Union) claiming that the attacks “began spontaneously” after protests “sparked by this hateful video.” She was referring to the movie-trailer Innocence of Muslims that was viewed as denigrating Islam. She immediately came under fire from Republicans for blaming the video. In the ensuing controversy, she withdrew from consideration for Secretary of State nomination.

Barack Obama delivers statement on US Consulate attack in Benghazi Sep 12, 2012
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton repeatedly referenced the anti-Islam video in speeches after the attacks. Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson.

The “talking points” that Susan Rice used have now been revealed to be revised a total of twelve times, all references to terror being removed. As it turns out, the administration knew “from the get-go” that it was a terrorist attack, but chose not to disclose it. Despite this, in a press statement, Hillary referenced the anti-Islam video kind of implying that it had something to do with the attack. Obama too referenced the video in his speech to the UN General Assembly.  In the second Presidential Debate with Mitt Romney, he even claimed to be offended by the suggestion that his administration would hide anything or purposely mislead the public. But why would he try to hide anything? The right says that an admission that the attack was orchestrated by terrorists would have hurt his election campaign, as it would have contradicted the popular narrative that the al-Qaeda was on the run after their leaders had been decimated.

The exact account of what really happened on 9/11 is brought forth by the testimony of Gregory Hicks, the deputy chief of mission at the embassy at the time of the attack. In his account, two points are worth noticing here. First that the fighter planes weren’t sent. Second that the Ambassador was taken to a  hospital believed to be controlled by Ansar Sharia. In his words:

I asked the defense attache, . . . ‘Is anything coming?  Will they be sending us any help?  Is there something out there?’  And he answered that, the nearest help was in Aviano, the nearest — where there were fighter planes.  He said that it would take two to three hours for them to get onsite, but that there also were no tankers available for them to refuel.  And I said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and we went on with our work. . . .

We learned that it is in a hospital which is controlled by Ansar Sharia, the group that Twitter feeds had identified as leading the attack on the consulate.

If the defense attache is to be believed, it’s baffling that there wouldn’t be a good enough arrangement in place for such emergencies. Why security didn’t reach has been a major point of investigation for the media. According to Fox News, the CIA officers were twice instructed to stand down. The CIA denied this publicly afterwards. So if the administration can be believed in this case, we have to commit ourselves to the contention that the security must have been weak. And that’s what the premise of contradictory reports of Ambassador Stevens pleading for extra security but being denied, and refusing offers of extra security twice is. Tellingly, Stevens was taken to a hospital controlled by the enemy. I simply don’t know who’s responsible for this.

In a joint press conference with David Cameron held on May 13, reporters got the opportunity to fire questions about the issue. For anyone who wanted clear answers, what he said resulted in utter disappointment. He blamed Republicans for politicizing the issue and called the furor a “sideshow.” He even went on to deny that he ever shied away from calling the Benghazi incident a terrorist attack. Here is what he said:

The whole issue of talking points, frankly, throughout this process has been a sideshow.  What we have been very clear about throughout was that immediately after this event happened we were not clear who exactly had carried it out, how it had occurred, what the motivations were. . . . And keep in mind that two to three days after Susan Rice appeared on the Sunday shows, using these talking points, which have been the source of all this controversy, I sent up the head of our National Counterterrorism Center, Matt Olsen, up to Capitol Hill and specifically said it was an act of terrorism and that extremist elements inside of Libya had been involved in it. . . . So if this was some effort on our part to try to downplay what had happened or tamp it down, that would be a pretty odd thing that three days later we end up putting out all the information that, in fact, has now served as the basis for everybody recognizing that this was a terrorist attack and that it may have included elements that were planned by extremists inside of Libya. . . . Who executes some sort of cover-up or effort to tamp things down for three days?  So the whole thing defies logic.  And the fact that this keeps on getting churned out, frankly, has a lot to do with political motivations. We’ve had folks who have challenged Hillary Clinton’s integrity, Susan Rice’s integrity, Mike Mullen and Tom Pickering’s integrity.  It’s a given that mine gets challenged by these same folks.


In reality, he had called the incident an “act of terror” and not an “act of terrorism.” The difference between the two phrases may be subtle, but as noted by Glenn Kessler in The Washington Post, when he was asked a number of times in different circumstances to affirm that it was a terrorist attack, he ducked the question. Ducking the question is what he’s trying to do by feigning offence because his and Hillary’s “integrity” is being attacked.

The reason this is all so appalling is the extent to which Obama and Hillary tried to make people believe their story; and then disavowed it as soon as we knew that it was wrong. They told the Benghazi victims’ family that they will find the guy who made the video. (Nakoula aka “Sam Bacile”, the producer of the video is currently in jail for violating probation.) Also rebarbative is the extent to which the idea of tolerance towards religion has been pushed, although most liberals won’t find any problem with this.

Obama and Hillary condemned the anti-Islam video as it “denigrated a great religion.” The liberal media joined the chorus in condemning the video for hurting the religious feelings of Muslims. I think that this condemnation is totally unwarranted and here is where I (and New Atheists like Sam Harris) diverge from fellow liberals. Even after being shown evidence and clear reasoning for why belief matters, liberals’ inner voice of political correctness does not let them accept it. They remain in total denial, and this is how the concept of multiculturalism has gained so much foothold. It’s the idea that every culture is equally valid. That the Islamic culture of silencing dissent by murdering apostates is just as valid as the Western culture of free-thought. How absurd! The special privilege that religion is given in our culture (wrongly) is most often utilized by “supporters” of Islam to silence their critics, by conveniently labeling them “Islamophobic.” An excellent article by Ali A. Rizvi strives to explain why criticizing Islam isn’t wrong.

The IRS scandal
The Internal Revenue Service “targeted” conservative groups that had applied for tax-exempt status. Obama discussed this in the press conference:

I first learned about it from the same news reports that I think most people learned about this. . . . If, in fact, IRS personnel engaged in the kind of practices that had been reported on and were intentionally targeting conservative groups, then that’s outrageous and there’s no place for it. . . . I’ve got no patience with it.  I will not tolerate it.  And we will make sure that we find out exactly what happened on this.


So, he claimed complete lack of knowledge about it before the media disclosed it. This would be very surprising, if true. Conservatives see this as the Limbaugh theorem in action. This theorem is that Obama is never seen as governing, but trying to fix everything from the “outside.”  On the other hand, the acting IRS commissioner Steven Miller had to resign, after it was found that he was aware of all this. Culpability aside, the “real” IRS scandal here is that political groups, whether liberal or conservative, get tax exemption at all. The 501(c)(4) status, which such groups apply for, keeps their donors confidential apart from making them tax exempt. There are varied opinions as to whether we should completely do away with 501(c)(4).

The seizure of AP’s phone records
Federal investigators secretly obtained two months of phone records for reporters and editors of The Associated Press. This action undermines the freedom of the press. Although, it has been suggested that it is related to a government investigation into information leaks, the overwhelming amount of records obtained defeats any attempt at justification.  In an angry letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, the president and CEO of AP, Gary Pruitt called this action as “a serious interference with AP’s constitutional rights to gather and report the news” and “a massive and unprecedented intrusion by the Department of Justice.” Obama got a chance to respond to the AP scandal in a press conference with Turkey’s Prime Minister on May 16. Here’s what he said:

Now, with respect to the Department of Justice, I’m not going to comment on a specific and pending case.But I can talk broadly about the balance that we have to strike.  Leaks related to national security can put people at risk.  They can put men and women in uniform that I’ve sent into the battlefield at risk. They can put some of our intelligence officers, who are in various, dangerous situations that are easily compromised, at risk. . . .

And so I make no apologies, and I don’t think the American people would expect me as Commander-in-Chief not to be concerned about information that might compromise their missions or might get them killed.

Now, the flip side of it is we also live in a democracy where a free press, free expression, and the open flow of information helps hold me accountable, helps hold our government accountable, and helps our democracy function.  And the whole reason I got involved in politics is because I believe so deeply in that democracy and that process.


His response seems appropriate, and contrary to how he responded on other scandals, he did take responsibility and made the “Limbaugh Theorem” fail. His remarks about striking the balance between security and freedom of press were apt too. Although, how much sincerely he holds these views is yet to be seen.

Although, these scandals have found liberals on the defensive, they do not lend any credibility to the Republicans. After all, they are expected to make the most out of it, and gain a political advantage. But, what I think is unbecoming of Democrats is too try to evade the questions by calling it a political sideshow. Liberals do need self-reflection. And so do conservatives, arguably a lot more of it. No matter how much sense they make here or in their rejection of Islam, their “zombie” economic theories underlying their support for spending cuts (austerity) and tax cuts, rejection of science like Darwinian evolution, refusal to accept that climate change is real and man-made and countless other things do not. And lest we forget, Republican presidents have had scandals and bad decisions too. For starters, think Watergate or Bush’s Iraq invasion.

Obama is re-elected. Phew!

Barack and Michelle Obama in Dubuque, Iowa
Barack and Michelle Obama in Dubuque, Iowa


Note: I have changed a lot actually. This post doesn’t represent my views anymore.

Nothing can be more consoling to me at the moment than Obama’s win. The Romney campaign made it very clear: there’s only one choice voters had if they wanted a nation which provides equal opportunities to women, to Hispanics; doesn’t discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation; doesn’t abruptly outlaw abortion and push the motto of individualism when the reality is that the less fortunate among us need our support.

If Romney had won this election, it would’ve meant the defeat of truth. As Kevin M. Ruse said in a New York Times Opinion piece, his campaign showed a fundamental disdain for truth and by winning he would’ve successfully demonstrated that a candidate can get away with lying, at the scale he did.  PolitiFact chronicled 19 “pants on fire” lies by him including distortions about Obama’s policies on Medicare and taxes. Moreover, the Republican party’s extremely conservative approach towards issues like abortion and climate change would’ve made the matter worse. Although, both the candidates tried to shy away from the topic of climate change, Romney was the one to deny it and say, “I love coal.” Obama might have evaded the topic to win votes among climate change skeptics, but his statement after winning the election makes his stance clear:

“We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”

The nations need to combat climate change with agreed-upon and tough measures, instead of blaming it on one another or denying it altogether. In this respect, Obama’s re-election as the President of one of the top countries on greenhouse gas emission lists, is a good sign for the future.

I can rant incessantly about how the out-dated perspective of the GOP would’ve been gut-wrenching for our nation. We cannot afford to ignore those in need, by letting markets dictate their own will. An example of left-wing approach to solving healthcare problems is Obamacare, a piece of legislation that requires insurance companies to provide people with insurance at same rates regardless of pre-existing conditions or gender. Although, this requires people who are well-off to pay a tax to support this system, its benefits can hardly be overemphasized. Yet, Romney wanted to repeal it. The people in the European nations look at the US with surprise, as they already have such legislation in their countries. Also, abortion, gay marriage are not even issues to be pondered over there. In these respects, the GOP is more conservative and more on the right than almost any party in Europe. The fact that its candidate did not get in the Office, does not ever cease to be pleasant for a freethinking liberal like me.

There’s much to do. We need to shut down that detention camp in Guantánamo bay, need to revive the economy and a lot more. Wish Obama luck for #4moreyears.

The Guardian has a take on what Obama’s victory means for action on global warming.

The photograph of Barack and Michelle Obama was taken by Scout Tufankjian for Obama for America and available at Flickr. It was used here under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.