Taken together, the multiple scandals simultaneously weighing on the White House show at the very least an administration with little control over its departments as it claims ignorance of each wrongdoing, mismanagement and blunder.
But the AP phone records scandal, while having its own power boost as it infuriates free press advocates on both sides of the aisle, has an irrefutable tie to what many believe is the underlying reason for a Benghazi cover-up.
On April 30, 2012, President Obama’s counterterrorism adviser John Brennan gave a touted address titled “The Ethics and Efficacy of the President’s Counterterrorism Strategy” at the Woodrow Wilson Center in D.C.
The lengthy address, with remarks released early to the press by the White House, hailed the commander in chief as a fearless leader of a crushing effort resulting in the steady decimation of al-Qaeda.
“Al-Qaeda leaders continue to struggle to communicate with subordinates and affiliates. Under intense pressure in the tribal regions of Pakistan, they have fewer places to train and groom the next generation of operatives. They’re struggling to attract new recruits. Morale is low, with intelligence indicating that some members are giving up and returning home, no doubt aware that this is a fight they will never win,” Brennan said.
“In short, al-Qaeda is losing, badly. And bin Laden knew it. In documents we seized, he confessed to ‘disaster after disaster.’ He even urged his leaders to flee the tribal regions, and go to places ‘away from aircraft photography and bombardment.’”
Brennan admitted that affiliates including al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Boko Haram still had some legs. But he concentrated on the destruction of the core in his remarks.
“So damaged is al-Qaeda’s image that bin Laden even considered changing its name. And one of the reasons? As bin Laden said himself, U.S. officials ‘have largely stopped using the phrase “the war on terror” in the context of not wanting to provoke Muslims.’ Simply calling them al-Qaeda, bin Laden said, ‘reduces the feeling of Muslims that we belong to them,’” Brennan said. ”To which I would add, that is because al-Qaeda does not belong to Muslims. Al-Qaeda is the antithesis of the peace, tolerance and humanity that is at the heart of Islam.”
“…If the decade before 9/11 was the time of al-Qaeda’s rise, and the decade after 9/11 was the time of its decline, then I believe this decade will be the one that sees its demise,” he added, crediting in large part “the comprehensive counterterrorism strategy being directed by President Obama.”
Brennan is now head of the CIA, where wanna-be whistleblowers with information on Benghazi reportedly have been prevented from providing information to Congress.
His speech on the impending demise of al-Qaeda served as a blueprint for the “al-Qaeda is on the run” narrative of Obama’s re-election campaign.
On May 7, 2012, the Associated Press cited unnamed officials in its story on the CIA’s thwarting of an AQAP plot to use a second-generation underwear bomb to destroy a U.S.-bomb airliner around the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death.
Just days before, the Department of Homeland Security and the White House were reassuring the American public that there were no known plots to mark bin Laden’s death, even though the CIA operation was unfolding at the time.
The AP pointed out the White House’s previous denials in that story.
“We have no credible information that terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda, are plotting attacks in the U.S. to coincide with the anniversary of bin Laden’s death,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said on April 26.
On May 1, the Department of Homeland Security said, “We have no indication of any specific, credible threats or plots against the U.S. tied to the one-year anniversary of bin Laden’s death.”
Theories swirled at the time that the White House orchestrated the leaks to burnish Obama’s desired tough-on-terror image.
“I don’t think you have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out what’s going on here. You’ve had three leaks of intelligence that paint the president as a strong leader,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in June 2012, adding the foiled bomb plot story “was about how the Obama administration saved us all.” Senators who were furious about the leaks included Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
The Benghazi theory that’s gained more traction since a recent wave of whistleblowers appeared before Congress holds that blame was quickly pinned on an anti-Muhammad YouTube video to support the claim that al-Qaeda was on the run. A cornerstone of the tough-on-terror narrative was painting a picture of an organization that had been weakened to the point that it couldn’t pull off anniversary attacks such as the underwear bomb to mark the death of bin Laden or the consulate attack to mark 9/11.
And with the AP story at issue highlighting the administration’s denials of any credible threat, it adds another reason why the White House would have been irate about the story.
The reaction showed they were eager to bury the news above bragging.
The day after the story broke, Obama headed to New York for a speech at the University of Albany in which he proposed a “to-do list” for Congress.
Carney told reporters en route that the president was “certainly pleased with the success” of the U.S. intelligence community in “foiling” the attempt, but likely wouldn’t mention it. Sure enough, Obama didn’t mention terrorism at all in the speech.
The Justice Department secretly obtained phone records for April and May 2012 for more than 20 lines used by reporters and editors of the newswire. The AP noted that prosecutors have sought reporters’ phone records before, but the scope of the DOJ’s request, “including general AP switchboards numbers and an office-wide shared fax line, is unusual.”
“Among those whose phone numbers were obtained were five reporters and an editor who were involved in the May 7, 2012, story,” the AP added of the actions that could have a chilling effect on their relationships with sources and whistleblowers in the future.
Three days after the story, the House Transportation & Infrastructure and Oversight and Government Reform committees released a report on the TSA’s wasted dollars on inefficient screening technologies.
“The CIA uncovered terrorists’ latest modified underwear bomb plot, but TSA has repeatedly failed to effectively procure and deploy screening equipment that actually detects threats, and incredible amounts of its state-of-the-art technology is gathering dust in Texas warehouses,” Transportation Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) said at the time.
Much of the fallout from the AP’s story consisted of angry lawmakers wanting to plug intelligence leaks, which supports the meme of an administration with little control over its tentacles.
But a lot of the hue and cry consisted of exactly what the Obama campaign didn’t want in the news cycle.
Two days after the original AP report, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) called it “odd” that the White House was trying to hold the story yet hadn’t informed Congress about the operation as required.
“The problem is, we could have gotten more. It was clearly, I don’t know — this is the funny season, this time of year,” he said in reference to campaign time. “…You cannot use your political interest ahead of our national security interest; it’s dangerous and that’s why you have these third-party oversight provisions in the law.”
“I can tell you there are so many potential plots, and it’s not just al-Qaeda Central. When President Obama says that the war began in Afghanistan, it’s going to end in Afghanistan: He has to know better than that,” then House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.) also said two days after the AP story broke.
“Now we have al-Qaeda in Yemen, in Somalia, in Iraq, in Morocco; we can go though the whole list of countries where al-Qaeda is spreading. Mali, even Libya we have to be concerned about al-Qaeda.”
Four months later, four Americans including Ambassador Chris Stevens were killed in the attack on the Benghazi compound.