Written by Tom Fitton
The Obama administration came under heavy fire from both the Left and the Right in May of this year for secretly collecting telephone records of Associated Press reporters. The administration attempted to defend itself by arguing that the AP “had it coming” for revealing classified details about a foiled terrorist plot to bomb a U.S. aircraft scheduled to fly from Yemen to the United States.
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The AP’s disclosures “put the American people at risk,” the Obama Department of Justice (DOJ) claimed.
But there is one gaping hole in the DOJ’s argument. At the time that the AP story broke, then-Obama counterterrorism advisor John Brennan evidently hosted a conference call with select TV terrorism consultants to discuss details related to this same terrorist plot.
As noted in a May 15, 2013, NBC News report, “[T]hat assertion by Attorney General Eric Holder could be undermined by the White House’s decision to publicly comment about the operation at the time and reveal details beyond those in the original AP story, according to legal experts and counterterrorism officials.”
So our first question is this: If the AP story, as the Obama administration has argued, “put the American people at risk,” couldn’t the same be said of Brennan’s call with the press?
Well, certainly obtaining the conference call transcript would go a long way toward answering this question. Unfortunately, the Obama administration continues to keep the transcript under lock and key, which is why Judicial Watch is now forced to go to court to bust the stone wall.
On June 21, 2013, we filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) seeking the Brennan phone call transcript.
By letter on March 21, 2013, the CIA acknowledged receipt of JW’s request on March 5, 2013. The letter blithely stated that it was unlikely the CIA could respond to the request within 20 working days as required by law, adding, “You have the right to consider our honest appraisal as a denial of your request and you may appeal to the Agency Release Panel.”
However, the CIA’s statement in and of itself was not an adverse determination within the meaning of FOIA law, and no administrative appeal was possible. That’s why we’re now forced to go to court.
Now let’s take a step back for just a moment and review what we know so far about this facts in this case.
On May 7, 2012, the AP broke the story of the foiled airliner bomb plot, reporting:
The CIA has thwarted a plot by al-Qaida’s affiliate in Yemen to destroy a US-bound airliner using a bomb with a new design around the one-year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden.
The plot involved an upgrade of the underwear bomb that failed to detonate aboard a jetliner over Detroit on Christmas 2009.
According to Reuters, following the breaking of the story by AP, Brennan, then a top White House adviser on counterterrorism, conducted a teleconference with select former counterterrorism advisers, who had become TV news commentators, to privately brief them on yet-unrevealed details of the foiled Yemeni plot.
While Brennan assured the commentators that “the plot was never a threat to the U.S. public or air safety because Washington had ‘inside control’ over it,” his comments reportedly “helped lead to disclosure of the secret at the heart of a joint U.S.-British-Saudi undercover counter-terrorism operation.”
NBC News reported that Brennan had an explanation regarding why he chose to host the conference call: “Brennan later told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he conducted the briefing to avoid ‘dangerous questions and speculation’ about the operation.”
Okay, fair enough. Then why the secrecy? If the purpose of Brennan’s conference call was to avoid “dangerous questions and speculation” about the foiled terrorist plot, why not disclose these details to the public for this very same purpose?
Perhaps because the record will clearly show that John Brennan’s media briefing surpassed what was reported by the AP, thereby “undermining,” as NBC News reported, the Obama administration’s heavy-handed Big Government spying campaign against the AP.
And it was heavy-handed. “In a sweeping and unusual move, the Justice Department secretly obtained two months’ worth of telephone records of journalists working for the Associated Press as part of a year-long investigation into the disclosure of classified information about a failed al-Qaeda plot last year,” the Washington Post reported on May 13, 2013.
According the article, federal authorities obtained cellular, office, and home telephone records of individual reporters and an editor; AP general office numbers in Washington, New York and Hartford, Conn.; and the main number for AP reporters covering Congress.
This is truly classic: the Obama administration stonewalling the release of the details of a briefing to the press. One might conclude that the cover-up related to this antiterrorism briefing has something to do with minimizing the controversy of their extraordinary investigation into the AP over its reporting on the topic covered in this very same briefing.
After all, it would be a nightmare for the Obama administration if a press briefing hosted by the Obama administration’s top counterterrorism advisor turned out to be far more potentially harmful to national security than the original AP report that prompted a government action that led to less freedom for the press. (To be clear, unlike some, I don’t think the media is above the law nor should be given “extra” protections from court processes that some Republicans and Democrats are pushing.)
As I say, we won’t know the full details until we get hold of the transcript, which is why this is a transparency fight worth having. More on this in future editions of the Weekly Update.
If you want to know why Judicial Watch has led the fight to obtain every White House visitor log, look no further than the still-growing IRS scandal, where the agency targeted Tea Party and other conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, improperly disclosed confidential financial information from these organizations and targeted conservative individuals with unnecessary audits.
Per The Daily Caller:
The Obama appointee implicated in congressional testimony in the IRS targeting scandal met with President Obama in the White House two days before offering his colleagues a new set of advice on how to scrutinize tea party and conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
IRS chief counsel William Wilkins, who was named in House Oversight testimony by retiring IRS agent Carter Hull as one of his supervisors in the improper targeting of conservative groups, met with Obama in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on April 23, 2012.
On April 25, 2012, Wilkins’ office sent the exempt organizations determinations unit “additional comments on the draft guidance” for approving or denying tea party tax-exempt applications, according to the IRS inspector general’s report.
The Daily Caller also notes that “Wilkins’ boss, then-IRS commissioner Douglas Shulman, visited the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on April 24, 2012, according to White House visitor logs.”
Raise any red flags with you? It certainly does with me. The IRS man behind the targeting of Tea Party and other conservatives met with President Obama two days before the attack plan was issued. And his boss, then-IRS Commissioner Shulman, met with the president the very next day. And they did not discuss this new plan?
GovernmentExec.com called the revelation a potential “smoking gun.” I tend to agree. At the very least, President Obama needs to personally address exactly what was discussed during these meetings. His silence will only deepen suspicions that the president himself issued the order, in a scandal the administration attempted unsuccessfully to pin on the local Cincinnati IRS office.
(Incidentally, Wilkins also has ties to Obama’s nut-house spiritual advisor and life coach, the “Reverend” Jeremiah Wright. Click here for more on that.)
As evidence emerged seemingly suggested that the IRS scandal could have been initiated from the very top, new allegations also surfaced this week that IRS targeting was more far-reaching than initially believed. In addition to Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status, new evidence suggests that conservative organizations that had already received tax-exempt status were also subject to scrutiny. Judicial Watch was proud to sign a Free Congress-led coalition letter with nearly 80 other conservative organizations and activists demanding a broadened investigation into this very issue. This coalition got results.
Fox News had the story:
House Republicans want an inspector general to open up a new front in an investigation of the Internal Revenue Service, focusing on the agency’s treatment of conservative groups that were already granted tax-exempt status.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan charged Monday the IRS targeted those groups for extra scrutiny.
Among the organizations allegedly targeted: The Leadership Institute and the Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute.
The Leadership Institute, operating as a tax-exempt organization since 1979, was audited in 2011 and 2012. The IRS reportedly subjected the organization to “invasive questions” and required more than 23,000 pages of documents. The tab for the audits cost approximately $50,000.
The Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute, in business for over a decade, was subjected to its first ever audit in 2011. Michelle Easton, a spokesperson for the Institute told The Wall Street Journal, that “she was asked for donor lists and had to provide check registries and other paperwork, a process that was expensive, time-consuming, and made it hard to focus on the group’s mission.”
And that’s not all folks.
Not only did the IRS scandal involve more conservative organizations than initially believed, but it also seems to have involved the Federal Election Commission (FEC). While IRS official Lois Lerner told Congress she “did nothing wrong,” she may have violated federal law, says The National Review:
Embattled Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner and an attorney in the Federal Election Commission’s general counsel’s office appear to have twice colluded to influence the record before the FEC’s vote in the case of a conservative non-profit organization, according to e-mails unearthed by the House Ways and Means Committee and obtained exclusively by National Review Online.
The correspondence suggests the discrimination of conservative groups extended beyond the IRS and into the FEC, where an attorney from the agency’s enforcement division in at least one case sought and received tax information about the status of a conservative group, the American Future Fund, before recommending that the commission prosecute it for violations of campaign-finance law. Lerner, the former head of the IRS’s exempt-organizations division, worked at the FEC from 1986 to 1995, and was known for aggressive investigation of conservative groups during her tenure there, too.
According to federal law, the IRS is not legally able to disclose confidential tax information to the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Nonetheless, Lerner reportedly willingly turned it over in advance of the FEC vote. The FEC General Counsel’s office, for its part, is not, by law, allowed to begin an investigation of a non-profit until after the vote of the six-member FEC panel. (Ultimately the panel split, and then voted 6-0 to close the case.)
So is anyone still buying Lerner’s “non-testimony” before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee?
Here’s Lerner’s statement verbatim: “I have not done anything wrong, I have not broken any laws, I have not violated any IRS rules or regulations and I have not provided false information to this or any other congressional committee.”
Then she took the Fifth.
So let’s sum up the week’s news. First we have the IRS official responsible for issuing the edict to target Tea Party organizations meeting with President just two days before the command was issued. We have the list of organizations targeted by the IRS expanding to conservative organizations that had already been cleared by the IRS and had received tax-exempt status. And we have IRS official Lois Lerner improperly releasing tax records to the FEC General Counsel’s office, at its request, to target yet another conservative organization – both parties evidently in violation of the law.
It continues to go from bad to horrible to outrageous for the Obama administration in this ever-growing IRS scandal.
As I’ve reported in this space previously, Judicial Watch has a number of active Freedom of Information Act investigations into the IRS scandal, and our legal and investigative staff has been appropriately mobilized. Also be sure to check out the panel discussion we held on June 20, 2013 entitled, “The Continuing IRS Scandal.” You can watch the video here.
Our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) work really has one purpose: to lay bare for the American people the inner-workings of government. We believe that transparency is the antidote to corruption and that FOIA law requires that government officials err on the side of public disclosure when it comes to government records.
The Obama administration takes a very different view, selectively releasing records that make the president look good, while shielding records that might cast the president or his administration in a negative light.
We have to scratch and claw for every record from this administration related to a host of scandals. Even some as seemingly innocuous as the cost of Obama family vacations.
In our view, American taxpayers have a right to know how much of their hard-earned money is used to support the leisure activities of the president and his family. I’ve surmised that the Obama administration’s view is information related to their luxury vacationing could harm the president’s carefully crafted image and so they keep these records shielded from public view.
Fortunately, Judicial Watch has been successful in forcing the Obama administration to come clean on Obama vacation records. We started all the way back in 2009, obtaining the Secret Service costs of the Obamas’ “date night” in New York City. (Click here for a full list of our disclosures.) And now we’re back at it again.
On June 21, 2013, JW filed a FOIA lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia against the U.S. Secret Service to obtain information pertaining to the costs to taxpayers of Barack Obama’s February 2013 “boys’ weekend” in Palm Beach, Florida, and the simultaneous vacations of Michelle Obama and Joseph Biden in Aspen, Colorado.
Specifically, JW seeks access to the following records pursuant to its February 15, 2013, FOIA request:
By letter on March 18, 2013, the Secret Service acknowledged having received JW’s request on February 27, 2013. By law, it had until March 27, 2013, to notify JW of its determination, the reasons therefore, and the right to appeal any adverse determination. As of the date of the FOIA lawsuit, the Secret Service had failed either to comply or to indicate when a response will be forthcoming.
On February 15, 2013, in an article entitled, “Obama treats himself to boys’ weekend in Florida,” The Associated Press reported that the president “high-tailed it south after a speech Friday in Chicago on building a stronger middle class.” Reporting on Obama’s retreat to the West Palm Beach “well-trod stomping ground of the rich,” WhiteHouseDossier.com observed, “While unemployment stands at nearly eight percent, Obama is taking his second vacation of 2013. The year is only six weeks old.”
Also on February 15, 2013, the Washington Post reported that “First Lady Michelle Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia are spending their Presidents’ Day weekend in Aspen, Colo., where they’re expected to hit the ski slopes.” According the article, Michelle Obama and her daughters had spent the past two Presidents’ Day weekends in Aspen. The article reported that Vice President Biden and his family were also vacationing in the swanky ski resort town.
The JW suit is not the first time the organization has been forced to go to court to obtain information about taxpayer funding of lavish vacations for the president and his family. In October 2011, Judicial Watch obtained documents pertaining to a June 21-27, 2011, trip taken by Michelle Obama, her family and her staff to South Africa and Botswana. According to expense records and manifests for that trip, the cost for flight and crew alone was $424,142.
In April 2012, Judicial Watch obtained documents through a FOIA lawsuit from the United States Air Force and the United States Secret Service detailing costs associated with what the press described as Michelle Obama’s “whirlwind tour of Spain” in August 2010. According to a Judicial Watch analysis, the trip, which included visits to coastal towns, shopping and a lunch date with the country’s King and Queen, cost the taxpayers at least $467,585.
These lavish personal vacations are symbolic of the total indifference this administration has to the out of control costs of government. Once again, the administration is, contrary to law, stonewalling simple requests for just how much their luxe lifestyles are costing American taxpayers.
And don’t expect press outlets to do any hard reporting on this controversy.
Breitbart’s Tony Lee points out the hypocrisy:
Eight months into President George W. Bush’s second term, the Washington Post wrote that Bush’s frequent trips to his Texas ranch symbolized “a lackadaisical approach to the world’s most important day job” and gleefully noted that Bush was intent on setting the record for being on “vacation”— or away from Washington, D.C. – for the most number of days of any president.
But when President Barack Obama vacations in Hawaii, sets up a fantasy golf vacation for himself with Butch Harmon and Tiger Woods, averages more than a vacation a month in 2013 while purporting to be a man of the people and demanding the rich pay their fair share, and playing sequester politics by shutting down White House tours, the mainstream media is silent.
Even the Washington Post had to admit (as Lee notes), that President Bush spent the majority of his vacation time chopping wood or riding a mountain bike, and “did not make time for fun.” So why does the press remain silent on the Obama family vacations?
Nonetheless, JW will continue to do the job the media refuses to do, hold the administration to account for spending taxpayer dollars on Obama family vacations (and the travel of the Obama administration’s “top dogs” as well).
In case you are wondering, the Obama’s will have their sixth luxury vacation this year up in Martha’s Vineyard beginning August 10. And, yes, we’ll be checking on the price to taxpayers for that one, too.
Until next week…
Tom Fitton, President Judicial Watch, Inc., a conservative, non-partisan educational foundation, promotes transparency, accountability and integrity in government, politics and the law. Through its educational endeavors, Judicial Watch advocates high standards of ethics and morality in our nation's public life and seeks to ensure that political and judicial officials do not abuse the powers entrusted to them by the American people. Judicial Watch fulfills its educational mission through litigation, investigations, and public outreach.