What A Week: White House Rattled By Controversy
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. There are three simultaneous controversies rattling the Obama administration this week: the IRS, the phone records of the AP reporters, and Benghazi. NPR's White House correspondent Ari Shapiro joins us. Ari, thanks for being with us.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: My pleasure, Scott.
SIMON: Let's start on Monday. The president held a press conference with Britain's prime minister, David Cameron. The prime minister called on the world to confront the crisis in Syria, but President Obama got a lot of questions over the first reports that the Internal Revenue Service had put extra scrutiny on Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status. Now, remind us, how did this story break open?
SHAPIRO: Well, it actually started a week ago Friday, with an inspector general investigation. A draft report was sent to Congress, and started to leak out to the press. Initially on Friday, IRS officials apologized, sort of blaming this controversy on low-level staffers in the Cincinnati office. This week, it became clear that more folks higher up the chain of command knew what was going on; that the searches were not just for Tea Party organizations, but groups with "patriot" in their name, groups with small government aims. The final inspector general report still was not out when President Obama addressed it for the first time - as you described - on Monday. So he was a bit cautious. Here's part of what he said:
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We'll wait and see what, exactly, all the details and the facts are. But 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.
SHAPIRO: And when the final report did come out on Wednesday, the president announced the acting IRS commissioner was leaving; later, a second official as well. He said he'd revisit the laws surrounding tax-exempt groups and IRS designations, to make sure that the rules were clear. And he also promised to work with Congress as their investigation unfolds.
SIMON: Then another controversy broke. Later that day, reports that the Justice Department had secretly taken Associated Press phone records as part of a leak investigation. Now, at the White House briefing - you were there - fair to say, there were a lot of sharp questions, including your own.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. Questions about all three of the controversies you mentioned, but I think there was a different tone about the Associated Press phone records being secretly taken. This is the point on the conversation, Scott, where in the interest of disclosure, we should say that NPR signed onto a letter from various news organizations, objecting to the seizure of those records. But - as you said - at that briefing, there was a lot of pushback, real ire from the media; to which Jay Carney, the spokesman, said the president believes in balance between protecting national security and freedom of the press. But one of the things that a lot of reporters, myself included, pointed out is that the president's record on these issues doesn't seem to reflect a lot of balance. This administration has brought twice as many cases against national security leaks as all the previous administrations combined - some half a dozen cases.
SIMON: Well, crystallize for us what's at stake in the AP case. These aren't wiretaps. They are phone records that could show who a reporter speaks to about what story. Was there any allegation that the phone records might help the government stop some kind of ongoing, criminal conspiracy?
SHAPIRO: Well, if you look back at the Associated Press stories that these were apparently centered on, they dealt with a bomb plot that originated in Yemen. And what people have been able to piece together is that allegedly, this story uncovered a double agent. The central question is, did the Justice Department need to target the Associated Press records as broadly as they did; and did they need to do it in utter secrecy - without letting anybody know that they were obtaining these records - by going through the phone companies rather than telling the Associated Press that they needed these records?
SIMON: Then late in the week, the administration released about a hundred pages of Benghazi emails. Did these emails stem or fuel the controversy?
SHAPIRO: Well, I think the Republican members of Congress who are investigating the Benghazi matter are not going to stop investigating the Benghazi matter because the emails were released. But at least it did put to rest some of the questions about how the talking points took shape following this attack last September.
SIMON: NPR's White House correspondent Ari Shapiro. Thanks so much.
SHAPIRO: You're welcome.