Congressional investigations are often ineffective
With all the running battles in the nation’s capital, Americans tend to lose track of where particular controversies stand. And if this happens, it’s all too likely that bad actors won’t be held accountable and problems won’t get solved.
By way of example, this entry will review three controversies that have dragged on for years – Fast & Furious gun walking (some say running) scheme, Benghazi attack & aftermath, and IRS targeting of conservative groups. Wouldn’t it be nice to get to the bottom of these problems, and is there much chance of doing so?
A. Fast and Furious – Early in the first term of the Obama administration, a division (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) of the Department of Justice (DOJ) began permitting (under an operation known as “Fast and Furious”) known or suspected gun smugglers to purchase weapons at federally licensed gun dealers in Arizona. As expected, some of the guns acquired in this fashion wound up in the hands of Mexican drug smuggling gangs.
The purported purpose was to determine how gun smuggling was happening so that this activity could be systematically eradicated, but after a US border patrol officer was killed (not to mention hundreds of people being killed in Mexico) and a gun that had been purchased through F&F was found at the scene, the program was terminated and DOJ higher ups seemed to develop amnesia about having condoned it in the first place. Gun-running timeline: How DOJ’s “Operation Fast and Furious” unfolded, Fred Lucas, cnsnews.com, 7/7/11.
Writing about F&F a year later, we suggested that the administration was attempting to cover up the operation rather than ensuring that it was investigated and the people responsible were held accountable. The imperial presidency returns, 6/25/12.
In both scope and results, we would view this activity as more serious than the activities of the White House “plumbers” unit that got caught in the Watergate break-in. There are also indications that high level officials may be attempting a cover-up. In this vein, several key statements by the Department of Justice have been retracted after it became clear that they were factually untenable. See, e.g., Holder retracts statement blaming Mukasey [for] Fast and Furious, Breitbart.com, 6/21/12. Time will tell whether the White House was involved in F&F; at this point we just don’t know. The inquiry will probably not be completed before the elections.
Subsequent congressional demands for DOJ documents about F&F ended with then Attorney General Eric Holder declining to comply on grounds of executive privilege, which would seemingly suggest some degree of White House complicity in the operation. The dispute dragged on in the courts until recently, when the claim of privilege was denied and the administration chose to turn over a first installment of the 20,000 documents in question instead of appealing the decision.
Eric Holder had stepped down as Attorney General by this time, the head of the House Oversight Committee (Rep. Darrell Issa) had been replaced, and the American public had probably forgotten what the controversy was about in the first place. Delighted that some progress was finally being made, the new House Oversight head (Rep. Jason Chaffetz) suggested that obstruction of justice charges might be in order. Oversight chairman: “Concerted effort” by DOJ to hide Fast & Furious docs, Anna Giaritelli, Washington Examiner, 4/13/16.
"There was a concerted effort here to make sure that the Congress never saw the light of day on these documents," the Utah Republican told Fox News' Bret Baier. "If you're going to withhold documents ... there needs to be a consequence to that and the new administration I hope will go back and prosecute these people, because they're clearly breaking the law."
Rep. Chaffetz may be right that the habit of stonewalling congressional requests will persist unless and until someone is decisively slapped down for doing it. We doubt that the next administration will consider bringing charges, however, unless there is a veritable bombshell in the DOJ documents that are finally being made available.
B. Benghazi – At the Democratic national convention in 2012, the international situation was hailed as much better than it had been when the president took office. Convention slogans express what will be at stake in November, 9/10/12.
Internationally, the president was credited with bringing the troops home from Iraq, giving the “gutsy” order to kill Osama Bin Laden, and charting a path that would soon end the war in Afghanistan. *** There was very little said about new international challenges, such as uncertain intentions of the Islamist regime in Egypt, a deadly civil war in Syria, instability in Iraq after a hasty US exit, deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan, or Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Also very little was said about defense cuts that may be coming.
About a week later, a terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya resulted in the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. How inconvenient, during the run-up to a presidential election!
Troubling questions quickly surfaced. Why had the ambassador’s repeated requests for beefed-up security at this installation been rejected? Why were no military counter-measures attempted during the 7-hour long attack? Why did administration officials, including the president, seem so anxious to link the attack to an obscure anti-Islamist video that may have provoked anger in other Muslim countries but probably had nothing to do with what happened in Benghazi? Some observers suspected a cover-up because the attack was politically embarrassing. The Benghazi scandal widens, John Hayward, Human Events, 9/28/12.
An independent review board (requested by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) found that mistakes had been made, but the board’s after-the-election report did not recommend decisive corrective action. Report on Benghazi attack cites “systemic failures,” Elise Labott, CNN, 12/19/12.
The report said there had been a "lack of transparency, responsiveness, and leadership at the senior levels" in Washington, Tripoli and Benghazi. *** Despite all the criticism, the board found no U.S. government employee had engaged in misconduct or ignored responsibilities and did not recommend any individual be disciplined.
It was subsequently announced that four State Department officials had been sanctioned, but the penalties were basically of the “slap on the wrist” variety. Benghazi penalties are bogus, Josh Margolin, New York Post, 12/26/12.
The highest-ranking official caught up in the scandal, Assistant Secretary of State Erc Boswell, has not “resigned” from government service, as officials said last week. He is just switching desks. And the other three are simply on administrative leave and are expected back.
The review board never interviewed Secretary Clinton, who not only bore responsibility for the security of State Department personnel in Libya but had spoken by phone with the president on the night of the attack. They also neglected to delve into claims that an anti-Muslim video had provoked the attack.
9/11/2 - Press release by Secretary Clinton while Benghazi attack was still in progress: Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.
9/12/12 - Remarks by the president in the Rose Garden: Since our founding, the United States has been a nation that respects all faiths. We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence. None. The world must stand together to unequivocally reject these brutal acts.
9/14/12 - Remarks by Secretary Clinton at Andrews Air Force Base (transfer of remains ceremony): This has been a difficult week for the State Department and for our country. We’ve seen the heavy assault on our post in Benghazi that took the lives of those brave men. We’ve seen rage and violence directed at American embassies over an awful internet video that we had nothing to do with. It is hard for the American people to make sense of that because it is senseless, and it is totally unacceptable.
9/16/12 - Remarks by UN Ambassador Susan Rice (later national security adviser) on five Sunday talk shows (extract from Face the Nation): . . . we’ll want to see the results of that [FBI] investigation to draw any definitive conclusions. But based on the best information we have to date, what our assessment is as of the present is in fact what began spontaneously in Benghazi as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Cairo where, of course, as you know, there was a violent protest outside of our embassy– –sparked by this hateful video. But soon after that spontaneous protest began outside of our consulate in Benghazi, we believe that it looks like extremist elements, individuals, joined in that– in that effort with heavy weapons of the sort that are, unfortunately, readily now available in Libya post-revolution. And that it spun from there into something much, much more violent.
9/25/12 - Remarks by the president to UN General Assembly: . . . a crude and disgusting video sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world. Now, I have made it clear that the United States government had nothing to do with this video, and I believe its message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity. It is an insult not only to Muslims, but to America as well -- for as the city outside these walls makes clear, we are a country that has welcomed people of every race and every faith.
In an appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 1/22/13, Clinton fended off questions about how things had been handled, but she did not succeed in dispelling claims that the administration had attempted to spin the Benghazi attack instead of simply reporting what had happened. Congressional interest in the matter continued, leading to the creation of a special committee under Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) to investigate the matter in depth. The scourge of political dishonesty (Part C), 5/5/14.
Nearly two years later, the investigation continues. Critics such as the ranking minority member of the committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings, have fought the investigation every step of the way on grounds the Benghazi attack has already been amply investigated. “Move along,” as the well-known line goes, “nothing to see here.” And the current plan for releasing the report in the midst of the campaign season is cited as demonstrating that the investigation is politically motivated. Trey Gowdy injects Benghazi into the 2016 campaign, Dana Milbank, Washington Post, 4/13/16.
Depending on how long the declassification review takes, the Benghazi report is on track to drop by mid-July, just before Congress recesses for the conventions and at a time when Republicans will be in need of a distraction from the Trump-Cruz standoff. If the review takes longer (they typically last from a few weeks to a several months), it could come out in September, in the campaign’s homestretch.
Rep. Gowdy has attributed the timing of the report to extensive new evidence that has been obtained and reviewed by the committee and to slowness of the administration in responding to information requests. He has also promised that the recommendations of the report will be worth the wait. Gowdy: Benghazi committee has new records, testimony and “enormous progress,” Ed Morrissey, hotair.com, 2/9/16.
In our opinion, previous investigations of the Benghazi matter were patently inadequate. It will be interesting to see whether the special committee produces more insightful conclusions, and if it does Rep. Gowdy (a former prosecutor) will deserve a lot of credit.
C. IRS targeting – This controversy began on a seemingly positive note. Conservative political groups had previously complained that the IRS was holding up their tax exemption requests (to ensure donations would not be reportable as income), and now the supervisor of the review group was coming forward to acknowledge the problem. IRS apologizes from targeting conservative groups during 2012 elections, Noah Rothman, medialite.com, 5/10/13.
Today, Lois Lerner, the head of the IRS unit which overseas tax exemption applications confirmed that organizations which included the words “tea party” or “patriot” in their applications were singled out for additional scrutiny. She described the Cincinnati-based staff who engaged in these practices as being “low level.”
An IG report and other evidence quickly surfaced, however, that Cincinnati personnel had been following guidance from the national office and that the top echelon of the IRS was aware of what was going on. Within a few days, the president addressed the nation on TV. He characterized the IRS conduct as “inexcusable” and announced that the acting head of the IRS had resigned. “Given the controversy surrounding this audit, it’s important to institute new leadership that can help restore confidence going forward.” Speech transcript, 5/15/13.
This reaction seemed like a good start to us, as was duly reflected in our reporting at the time. Kabuki theater in DC (item C), 5/20/13.
Concrete action has been taken in response to the IRS misconduct *** sacking of the acting IRS head (although he was reportedly slated to leave in June anyway) *** more personnel actions will likely follow before the controversy fades from the headlines *** no evidence of a cover-up to date, and our guess is that the IRS controversy will fizzle out pretty quickly.
Guess again! Confidence has not been restored under the new IRS commissioner, far from it, and the president has shown no further interest in the situation.
#When Lois Lerner was called to testify before the House Oversight Committee, she famously denied having done anything wrong and then declined to answer any questions. Many of her e-mails were subsequently said to be unavailable because her computer had crashed and later been destroyed. She had also used a personal e-mail account for some of her IRS business communications, which violated applicable rules. Lerner was never disciplined for her behavior, and she retired with a full pension.
#The IRS ignored document requests until served with a contempt citation, and then officials testified there was no way to recover the missing e-mails because – oops, sorry - the backup tapes had been destroyed. The matter had not been investigated thoroughly, however, and it turned out that many of the e-mails were recoverable after all.
#The clearance of conservative group tax exemption applications was not speeded up, at least initially, and the IRS proposed two rules that would have created new barriers to the use of nonprofit political organizations (impose tighter restrictions on “permissible” political activity and require social security numbers of donors). Both of these rules were withdrawn in the face of heavy opposition, but the IRS may try again at some point.
House Republicans have slammed Commissioner John Koskinen’s lack of cooperation, and some of them want to remove him from office – thereby demonstrating their high level of frustration. House Republicans push impeachment of IRS chief, Rudy Takala, Washington Examiner, 4/15/16.
•"We simply have to show that this House has standards, that Congress has rules and you can only thumb your nose so far, you can only lie and defraud and in some ways be incompetent before there has to be an impeachment," Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Republican of Texas, said on the House floor.
• "We subpoenaed documents and we bring in the commission to testify and we are trying to get the truth," said Florida Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis. "And yet what has happened? They've destroyed backup tapes that were under two congressional subpoenas.
House Speaker Paul Ryan agrees that the performance of the IRS has been subpar, but suggests House Republicans may have higher priorities to focus on. Ibid.
I think the IRS misled Americans. I think the IRS is not on top of their game with respect to preventing hacking from occurring in the future, cybertheft. ***[But] look, what I think what we need to do is win an election, get better people in these agencies and reform the tax code.
With less than a year remaining in the current administration, the idea of impeaching the mild-mannered, 76-year-old executive (formerly with Freddie Mac) seems like a political nonstarter – which wouldn’t get to the bottom of the IRS targeting activity anyway. Why not call on the president to remove Koskinen and let it go at that?
* * * * *
Some suggested conclusions based on these cases: (1) In the absence of mutual respect, it’s very difficult for Congress to hold an administration accountable for misconduct - which can always be rationalized on some basis or other. (2) To stem a decline into political irrelevance, Congress must find other ways to exert its influence.