Worst since Watergate? President Obama has used the Espionage Act six times to criminalise reporting, more than any predecessor
By Andrew W Roberts
When the two leaders of the world's superpowers met in the Californian desert for the much-heralded Sino-American summit in June, one of them was being credibly accused by the internal opposition of serious civil liberties violations, the secret seizure of journalists' phone and email records, the illegal use of the state tax authorities to harass citizens, a full-scale government cover-up over the circumstances of four murders and the "systematic targeting" of news organisations. The other leader was Xi Jinpeng.
All administrations — indeed almost all Western governments — have their high-profile scandals. Ronald Reagan had Iran-Contra, Margaret Thatcher had Westland, Bill Clinton had Whitewater and Lewinsky, George W. Bush had Scooter Libby, Tony Blair the sexed-up Iraq dossier. Silvio Berlusconi's "bunga bunga" is still dragging through the courts: in Italy, as in France or Spain, a scandal is almost a prerequisite of office.
Yet this summer Barack Obama has no fewer than four separate scandals pending, which are collectively referred to as "Obamagate". Astonishingly, less than a year after his re-election, we may be witnessing the unravelling of the Obama presidency.
Three well-placed whistleblowers have come forward to contradict the administration's version of the events that led to the death by asphyxiation of Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi on the night of September 11, 2012, and the murder of another State Department official Sean Smith and two former Navy Seals working as CIA contractors, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.
With the election campaign in full swing last September, the administration obfuscated the motive behind the attacks for as long as it could, hoping to present it as a spontaneous act of rage against an American-made anti-Muslim video, rather than what it really was: a well-planned terrorist assault by a Libyan offshoot of al-Qaeda. Obama's re-election campaign constantly repeated that he had "decimated" al-Qaeda, and so the death at its hands of the first US ambassador on active service since 1979 was decidedly off-message.
When Hillary Clinton runs for the White House in 2016, she will be hoping that her actions — and, even worse, her inaction-during and immediately after the attack on Benghazi will either be considered as ancient history or, more likely, as too complicated and controversial for a clear picture to emerge. Yet the report of the Accountability Review Board convened by Clinton herself and chaired by Ambassador Thomas Pickering, with no less a figure than former Joint Chiefs chairman Admiral Michael Mullen as its vice-chairman, found "systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels" and a "grossly inadequate [security posture] to deal with the attack that took place". This was ultimately Mrs Clinton's fault. The phrase she used at the Senate hearing on the attacks — "What difference, at this point, does it make?" — ought to be hung around her neck by the Republicans in 2016.
The fact that the then UN ambassador Susan Rice went on five Sunday morning TV shows five days after the attack to repeat the talking points given her by the CIA after several (possibly administration-led) rewrites to blame the video makes her, as Senator Lindsey Graham put it, "an essential player in the Benghazi debacle". But it was Hillary Clinton who testified under oath that the talking points had not been substantially changed. And it was Clinton and Obama — not Dr Rice — who kept on arguing that the video was a factor in the Benghazi attack after they knew that it wasn't. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Dr Rice was used as a (probably willing) lightning conductor for the criticisms that ought to be laid at Clinton's door.
President Obama's recent decision to appoint the famously abrasive Dr Rice as his new national security adviser was, along with some other controversial appointments he has made in the judiciary, a typically aggressive stance to take against the Republicans, especially while continuing to mouth his standard platitudes about "bipartisanship". As Susan Rice was not going to be confirmed by the Senate as secretary of state after her Benghazi performances, the NSC was the next best thing.
Obama's other appointment, of Samantha Power as ambassador to the United Nations, is a fascinating one. She has long been the foremost administration voice for liberal interventionism, which Obama has set his face firmly against in Syria. Power, Rice and Clinton all urged action in Syria before at least 90,000 people died there, but were overruled by Obama as leader of the so-called "consequentionalists", the group that believes that because intervention in Syria would have unforeseen consequences it would be better to do nothing there. "We are all consequentialists now," Dr Power has been heard saying recently.
Samantha Power will be adored at the United Nations for her remarks in 2002 equating Ariel Sharon with Yassir Arafat-"Sharafat", as she put it-and her article in the New Republic of March 2002 equating the Holocaust with "the role US political, economic and military power has played in denying freedom to others". "When Willy Brandt went down on one knee in the Warsaw Ghetto his gesture was gratifying to World War II survivors," she wrote, "but it was also ennobling and cathartic for Germany. Would such an approach be futile for the United States?" Such trite, liberal, self-hating, historically illiterate, anti-American bilge will go down a treat over in the big building on the East River and 45th Street.
If Benghazi was the only scandal besetting Obama he might well be able to ignore it, but Obamagate doesn't stop there. The administration originally claimed that the role of the Internal Revenue Service in deliberately targeting Tea Party groups was confined to some over-zealous low-level workers in the IRS's Cincinnati office. Now two IRS whistleblowers have proved that the orders to harass the conservatives came directly from Washington, although we still don't know precisely who gave them. The IRS attacks on the conservative groups have been described by the National Review as "a going-over that makes a colonoscopy look like the observation of the moon with a telescope", and were certainly unethical if not also illegal. Some perfectly innocent conservative groups even had the FBI set on them by the IRS. Many millions of dollars that were earmarked for use against Obama stayed tied up throughout the election by pending IRS investigations.
Just as with Benghazi, the timelines of the election cycle are vitally relevant here. For every time Obama denounced "attack ads run by shadowy groups with harmless-sounding names" — which proliferate on the Democratic side too — the IRS ramped up its campaign against Republican-supporting groups, but never began them against pro-Democrat ones. The whole affair stinks, yet because the key figure, Lois Lerner of the IRS, has invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, the investigation seems stalled. What we do know is that the head of the IRS, Douglas Shulman, visited the White House 157 times, most often during the period that his organisation was conducting its attacks on the conservative groups.
In May the US Justice Department was revealed to have been "systematically targeting" Fox News correspondent James Rosen and some Associated Press correspondents in order to try to track down yet another whistleblower. Rosen was secretly named under the Espionage Act as a "criminal co-conspirator" and also as a flight risk so that the authorities could monitor his phone and emails. In targeting as illegal what a former judge has surely correctly described as "ordinary, reasonable, traditional, lawful reporter skills" the Obama administration crossed a line.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Judith Miller has gone on record as saying: "Investigative reporting is dangerous and hasn't been as bad as it is now with the Obama administration since Watergate. The Espionage Act has been used six times by Obama, he has used this act to criminalise reporting more than any other president in history and he gets away with it because he is a Democrat and an African-American, which we're proud of." Even the leftwing New Yorker magazine, normally a stalwart defender of Obama, has editorialised that the secret subpoena of 20 AP phones "was the most aggressive known federal seizure of media records since the Nixon Administration".
The latest news that a secret court has ordered the telecoms giant Verizon to hand over the phone records of millions of Americans to the National Security Agency has upset many civil libertarians, who associate such behaviour with George W. Bush rather than their hero Barack Obama. In May reports surfaced that the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, has been attempting to solicit financial contributions for the smoother implementation of Obamacare from precisely the organisations, including insurance companies and healthcare providers, that her own office oversees. It's been described as a totally unethical "shakedown", and small wonder.
So far none of these prima facie abuses of power have been connected personally to the President, however much his senior staff must have known they were going on, largely because of the lamentable lack of interest shown by the major TV networks, four out of five of which are firmly on the Left. Although the administration is polling its lowest-ever numbers for honesty, only 50 per cent of Americans support congressional Republicans' investigations which are trying to get to the truth about the Benghazi cover-up, the IRS scandal, the Sebelius shakedown, and the Justice Department's seizing of journalists' phone and email records.*
Of course it may be that the real reason why Obamagate is stalling is because Americans simply take it for granted that their democratically-elected politicians are untruthful, self-hating hypocrites. In which case, Mr Xi, your ultimate victory is assured.
* SoRo: Actually...
Should Congress should continue to investigate?
73%: The IRS targeting of conservative groups
71%: Administration’s handling of Benghazi
71%: The NSA collecting the phone and Internet records of Americans
70%: The Justice Department's monitoring of certain journalists