policies – especially if that negative coverage exposes blunders or criminal
conduct. White House occupants devote considerable effort to uncovering
the identity of sources leaking such information to enterprising reporters.
The obsessive campaigns that the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations have
demonize, prosecute and destroy WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange provide
the latest evidence of the intense desire for vengeance. But there is a lesser-known
episode that also underscores that tendency and confirms that Hell hath no fury
like an administration whose malfeasance or incompetence has seen the light
of day because of a journalist’s investigative work.
book, Stonewalled: My Fight for Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction,
Intimidation, and Harassment in Obama’s Washington, former CBS television
reporter Sharyl Attkisson describes how she ran afoul of the White House because
of her work on the “Fast and Furious” gun-running scandal and her
subsequent inquiries into the September 11, 2012, terrorist attack on the US
consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that took the lives of Ambassador Christopher
Stevens and three other Americans.
Fast and Furious involved a sting operation that the Justice Department and
the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives concocted to infiltrate
and weaken Mexican drug cartels. The scheme entailed shipping traceable guns
to the drug trafficking gangs and then following the trail to identify and neutralize
those organizations and the kingpins who ran them. But Operation Fast and Furious
badly. Law enforcement personnel assigned to maintain the traces lost track
of where the weapons ultimately ended up. The cartels received more than 1,700
additional weapons at the expense of US taxpayers. Not surprisingly, the Obama
to conceal the nature and extent of the fiasco. Invoking “executive
privilege,” Attorney General Eric Holder even defied a congressional subpoena
to testify before a House committee investigating the Fast and Furious scheme.
Attkisson was the reporter who apparently attracted the administration’s greatest displeasure for stories she aired that exposed how the sting went so badly wrong. That animosity grew when her investigative articles on Benghazi became more numerous and prominent. “My Fast and Furious coverage,” Attkisson recalled in her memoir, “bled over into the Benghazi period. The Obama administration was just as frantic over my reporting on that topic. Just as desperate to learn who was talking to me and what I was learning from them.”
Soon she discovered unmistakable signs that her phones had been tapped and her computers compromised, developments that technical experts she called in for assistance confirmed. Apparently, the operatives who planted the bugs and conducted the computer intrusions concluded that she was using classified information from sources inside the government. The administration’s hostility and paranoia already was evident because of her coverage of Fast and Furious, but her news segments on the Benghazi fiasco apparently reinforced the administration’s negative attitude and triggered a more concerted campaign of harassment.
government e-mails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit
filed by Judicial Watch subsequently confirmed, Attkisson’s worries that she
had been targeted for surveillance and a White House campaign to stifle her
reporting were warranted. In one email exchange on October 4, 2011, a press
aide to Holder tells a spokesman for President Obama that Attkisson is “out
of control” with her work on Fast and Furious. The aide says further that
she plans to complain both to Attkisson’s editor and to Bob Schieffer,
a CBS veteran of four decades and the network’s chief Washington correspondent
– someone who had more than a little influence with the network’s corporate
leaders. There were indications that the administration’s animosity toward Attkisson
had an impact on her status at CBS. It was at least an unsettling coincidence
that although Attkisson had consistently
been among the top 20 reporters whose work was featured most frequently
on the major network nightly news programs from 2007 to 2010, her ranking then
began to decline, ultimately plunging to 78th by 2013. She left CBS
the following spring.
Attkisson concluded that she was not the only target of the White House’s wrath. Instead, she believed that the administration was “going after” other journalists and sources that it viewed as “harmful to its own self-interests.” There was ample evidence to support her conclusion on that point as well. As I noted in a previous article, Obama and his aides stepped up efforts to prosecute sources who engaged in unauthorized leaks and ordered the FBI to monitor reporters they believed were guilty of publishing articles based on leaked documents. The Justice Department even considered prosecuting those journalists for espionage. Targets included New York Times reporter James Risen and Fox News reporter James Rosen. Attkisson had reason to worry about continuing electronic surveillance or worse.
It was hardly the first time that an administration facing exposure misused
national security justifications to conceal more mundane and questionable motives,
and it would not be the last. Attkisson noted that “There are thousands
of examples over the decades, but one need look no further than Fast and
Furious to find government misconduct, bad actors, and false information
all wrapped up in one.” As she also discovered, reporters who do dare investigate
such behavior incur worrisome risks in doing so. Increasingly, occupants of
the White House do not consider themselves to be temporary stewards of executive
power, but emperors who should be beyond criticism, embarrassment, or even scrutiny.
It is a menacing mentality that poses a serious threat to an independent press.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies
at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books and more than 900 articles
on international affairs, press freedoms, and civil liberties.