In November 2014, a judge forced the Obama administration to hand over thousands of emails and other records associated with Operation Fast and Furious. This happened because Judicial Watch, a conservative-leaning government watchdog group, filed a lawsuit in September 2012 to make the Obama administration honor a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
Some of the emails the Obama administration was forced to divulge further expose a cover-up that has clearly been underway for years. Others show the spin and combative tactics the Obama administration has used against those in the media who dare to investigate them. Still, according to former CBS News reporter Sharyl Attkisson and others interviewed for this article, it is what’s still to come that will write the Nixonian epitaph for this president’s legacy.
The cover-up of this scandal is reminiscent of the Nixon administration’s attempted cover-up of Watergate. However, Operation Fast and Furious is bloodier and far more troubling than Watergate.
In Watergate, a group of people broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. The Nixon administration then attempted to cover up its involvement.
In Operation Fast and Furious, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) told gun store owners to sell guns to known straw purchasers. (Straw purchasers are people who can pass a background check who buy guns for people who can’t.) Many of those guns have since turned up at murder scenes, including that of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry and dozens of Mexican citizens.
In comparison, no one was killed in Watergate. The cover-up by the Obama administration has also led to Attorney General Eric Holder being held in contempt by Congress and to President Barack Obama using “executive privilege” to shield emails even from Holder to his wife. Few think shielding these emails will hold up to court challenges.To understand how this scandal has been able to fester for years without a conclusion despite whistleblowers and congressional investigations, we need to aim our lens at the media.
Watergate, of course, was seared into our nation’s consciousness by the fall of a president. In contrast, though Fast and Furious has been smoldering for years and, some argue, finally caused Holder to resign (he resigned just before the Obama administration was forced to release documents related to the scandal), it has not directly implicated Obama. The scandal’s cover-up has, however, been linked to the White House. And the many emails being shielded by executive privilege might be the modern equivalent of Nixon tapes.
To understand how this scandal has been able to fester for years without a conclusion despite whistleblowers and congressional investigations, we need to aim our lens at the media. Many major media outlets have been reluctant to investigate or report on Operation Fast and Furious. The ideal brought to life by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in the Watergate era seems to have been crushed under the heel of political favoritism. Those two investigative reporters were once so celebrated that Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman played them in the 1976 film “All the President’s Men.” Every journalism student still watches the movie and dreams, on some level, of being the next Woodward or Bernstein.
For many reasons, most of them have been reluctant to make this dream come true.
Sharyl Attkisson has been a notable exception. In February 2011, a letter was sent anonymously to her producer at CBS News. In the envelope was a copy of a letter Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, had sent to BATFE acting Director Kenneth E. Melson. Grassley wanted information about the BATFE-sanctioned sale of hundreds of firearms to straw purchasers.
“The letter was so explicit I knew there was something big going on,” said Attkisson. “I could tell Grassley had whistleblowers.”
Attkisson chose to pursue the story. Over the next year and more, her reporting exposed the government-overseen gun running operation and the massive cover-up in progress to hide it. As she reported on the scandal, however, Attkisson noticed a trend developing.
“CBS was less and less inclined to run stories on Fast and Furious,” she said. As she continued to interview BATFE agents-turned-whistleblowers and to pursue other stories that turned out to be critical of the Obama administration, she noticed her reports were not making it on air. She was quietly being shunned.
Attkisson had made a career of getting to the bottom of big stories. In 2000 she received an Investigative Reporters and Editors Finalist award for “Dangerous Drugs in 2000.” In 2001 she received an Investigative Emmy Award nomination for “Firestone Tire Fiasco” from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. In 2008 she made headlines by saying that a claim by Hillary Clinton that she dodged sniper fire in Bosnia wasn’t true. Attkisson had been one of the media members on the trip. “Obama officials were calling my bosses constantly, as well as emailing them—and calling and emailing me.”
In 2010 she received an Emmy Award nomination for her investigation into a waste of tax dollars. In 2012 Accuracy in Media gave her an Investigative Reporting Award for her reporting on Fast and Furious. In June 2012 her investigative reporting on Fast and Furious also won CBS Evening News the Radio and Television News Directors Association’s National Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Video Investigative Reporting. The accomplishments go on, but you get the point.
Meanwhile, as Attkisson investigated Fast and Furious, she said, “Obama officials were calling my bosses constantly, as well as emailing them—and calling and emailing me.” Emails would later show they were trying to get her under “control.”
Records obtained via a lawsuit filed by Judicial Watch—after the DOJ ignored a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request—and made public last November, show that the DOJ’s spokesperson, Tracy Schmaler, discussed ways to keep the press from reporting on Operation Fast and Furious with the White House’s Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz on Oct. 4, 2011.
Schmaler wrote: “I’ve talked to NYT, NBC and NPR—gave them all this. NBC not likely to go. Still waiting on other two.”
Judicial Watch notes that the talking points Schmaler sent to the news outlets (the “all this”) were redacted in the court-ordered release. It’s baffling to most observers how talking points sent to media outlets could be shielded by a president’s executive privilege.
In the email exchange, Schultz then asked Schmaler: “Any way we can fix Fox?”
Schmaler said, “No stories ... From NYT, AP, Reuters, WaPo [<em>Washington Post</em>], NBC, Bloomberg … I’m also calling Sharryl’s [sic] editor and reaching out to [Bob] Scheiffer. She’s out of control.”
Schultz replied: “Good. Her piece was really bad for AG [the attorney general]. Why do you think nobody else wrote? Were they not fed the docs?”
This single email chain implicates both the Obama White House and the DOJ. They were undoubtedly working to undermine a congressional investigation and to suppress media reports that might be critical of the Obama administration.
Judicial Watch also noted that the released “documents show that Obama made the extraordinary assertion of executive privilege over emails between Eric Holder and his wife, Sharon Malone. The emails show that Holder sent his spouse internal DOJ emails about Fast and Furious developments. There is nothing that would have been covered by executive privilege in these or other key records that show Barack Obama abused his power to keep them secret during his re-election campaign up until now.”
Of course, the “Sharryl” the DOJ spokesperson was referring to in the emails is Sharyl Attkisson. When asked if she was surprised her name was mentioned in this way or that Obama administration officials had called her employers, Attkisson said, “No. I’m sure my name is mentioned in hundreds of emails between Obama administration officials.”
Attkisson left CBS in March 2014. She is now the author of a powerful new book: “Stonewalled: My Fight for Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation, and Harassment in Obama’s Washington.” In that book, she details the Obama administration’s efforts to monitor and harass journalists, and she indicts much of the media for smothering investigative journalism as they bend to favor administration or corporate interests. Attkisson even found that her computers had been hacked. Her computers, she said, were literally turning themselves on and off at night.
Attkisson even found that her computers had been hacked. Her computers, she said, were literally turning themselves on and off at night. When a confidential source offered to have her CBS laptop computer examined by a well-placed forensics expert, the examination revealed it had been hacked by a sophisticated party that used software proprietary to a government agency. The examination showed the intruders had also gotten into the CBS system.
Attkisson reported this to CBS, and the corporation hired its own computer forensics firm, which confirmed that her CBS laptop and her personal Apple desktop had been subject to remote intrusions. Later, Attkisson also hired private computer-forensic experts who, she said, provided a third confirmation of remote intrusions and found evidence of government involvement.
After being frustrated that her investigative journalism wasn’t making it to the public, and with some of her sources worrying about being discovered by eavesdropping Obama administration officials, Attkisson decided it was time to leave CBS.
“Since publishing my book ‘Stonewalled,’” Attkisson said, “I’ve had a lot of journalists contact me to say ‘thank you’ and to tell me about similar challenges they have faced in getting original and investigative reporting published.”
When asked if she would tell today’s journalism students to challenge authority the way she has, Attkisson said, “It’s difficult to advise journalism students to argue with their future bosses over story decisions because it might cost them their careers. But they should never agree to do anything that is dishonest or factually incorrect.”
Attkisson is reluctant to label CBS as a propaganda arm for the Obama administration. She notes there are hundreds of employees at CBS. Many have different views. She does say, however, that there is a culture at CBS—and at other “mainstream” news outlets—that has been reluctant to be critical of the Obama administration.
A prime example that Attkisson cites in her book is how CBS sat on a video that would have harmed Obama’s chances during a key point in the 2012 presidential election. During the second debate, Mitt Romney and Obama sparred over when Obama first called the Benghazi attack “terrorism.” Obama claimed he called the Benghazi attacks “terrorism” in a Rose Garden speech the day after the attack, but a video interview recorded that same day with CBS’ Steve Kroft shows that Obama agreed when Kroft contended Obama had not called the Benghazi attacks terrorism. In that interview, Obama said the reason he did not call them acts of terror is because, “It was too early to tell.” Instead of running that video when it was very newsworthy, CBS acted as if the video didn’t exist.
Certainly decisions like this one don’t involve every person at a news organization—CBS hardly called all its reporters together to vote on whether to make the video public. But it clearly shows management was rooting for a certain team, and that they were willing to cheat to win.
Meanwhile, what makes marginalizing people like Attkisson particularly problematic is that few journalists outside of the big media outlets today have the resources to back up FOIA requests with lawsuits. This is why when Attkisson left CBS, she turned to Judicial Watch, which has had a great deal of success in suing the government for FOIA violations. Judicial Watch has filed two FOIA lawsuits on Attkisson’s behalf—one seeking withheld information on HealthCare.gov; the other seeking information from the FBI that could shed light on Attkisson’s computer intrusions.
“One of our strengths as an organization is that we continue to invest time and resources into investigations and litigation after the headlines fade,” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch. “We feel that it is critically important to uncover the truth about Fast and Furious.”
Judicial Watch is very active, pursuing documents despite refusal by government officials to make them public.
“We frequently must file lawsuits to get agencies to respond to FOIA requests,” Fitton said. “Unfortunately, there are no real penalties imposed upon agencies for refusing to comply with FOIA requests, so they are often ignored—until we file suit.”
Fitton’s group continues to pursue the truth in the deadly gun-running scandal, despite nonstop stonewalling by the Obama administration.“If you go into a story with a preconceived view, you’re only going to find what you’re looking for."
“It is clear from previous revelations that ATF tried to censor Fast and Furious whistleblower John Dodson by preventing the publication of his memoir,” he said. “Dodson is a client of ours, and recently sued DOJ over our FOIA requests for all records and communications related to him. We also have other ongoing lawsuits related to Fast and Furious. With regard to the most recent documents, we are still in court over the additional records that have been withheld and will be challenging some of these withholdings. You can certainly expect more news from us on this front.”
Attkisson is still investigating the scandal, as well. While no longer with CBS, she now does a segment for Sinclair Broadcast Group—a conglomerate of local television stations that reaches almost 40 percent of U.S. households. She is also writing for many publications, including The Heritage Foundation’s “The Daily Signal.”
At times in the past Atkisson has been called a “liberal.” Today she is often called a “conservative” by liberals, who don’t like her stories on Obama’s scandals. She discounts such labels.
“I follow the truth,” she said. “If you go into a story with a preconceived view, you’re only going to find what you’re looking for. I do believe reporters can be—and often are—impartial. Sometimes they come up against key gatekeepers who improperly introduce biases in the stories.”
A popular belief today is heroes are made by the times. Given Attkisson’s example, it certainly seems likely there are heroes in waiting who are only exposed by big events.
Stay tuned. Like Attkisson, America’s 1st Freedom won’t stop reporting on the Fast and Furious scandal until all of the truth is finally known.