Sharyl Attkisson was one of the most distinguished investigative journalists in television news, covering everything from the dangers of certain prescription drugs to mismanagement at the Red Cross to TARP to K Street. Over a career that spanned more than 20 years at CBS News, she received numerous awards for her work, including multiple Emmys.
In her memoir Stonewalled: My Fight for Truth against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation, and Harassment in Obama’s Washington, Attkisson looks back on the final years of her network career. One concludes from her book that Attkisson encountered more difficulty practicing her profession at CBS News during Obama’s tenure than at any other time. She reached an agreement for her departure from CBS News in March 2014, well before her contract was to expire.
The book’s subtitle refers to the difficulties Attkisson encountered in “Obama’s Washington.” The term is in part a euphemism for the Obama administration, but it also reflects the support for the administration within CBS News. The head of CBS News is David Rhodes, brother of Obama national-security adviser Ben Rhodes.
Attkisson is a dogged reporter, and Stonewalled is a gripping book, organized around the Obama-administration scandals she covered at CBS News. With the exception of the IRS scandal, she covered just about all of them: Fast and Furious, green-energy crony capitalism, Benghazi, and Obamacare. Attkisson devotes a chapter to her work on each one.
Each of the scandals falls into a larger pattern of scandal management practiced by the Obama White House. (The reader can infer how the IRS scandal fits the pattern precisely to a T.) Her book is invaluable for how it analyzes and exposes this pattern, combining her reportage and her behind-the-scenes work at CBS News.
The pattern begins with blatant denials — bald lies — and stonewalling. Attkisson deftly articulates one of the bona fide occupational qualifications for service as a spokesperson in the Obama administration. Referring specifically to HHS spokeswoman Joanne Peters, whom Attkisson had caught lying to her, she writes: “It takes a certain kind of person to be untruthful and then display utter lack of contrition when caught.”
Next in the pattern, when the lies fail, comes the attribution of responsibility to the lowest level of bureaucrat. Also, rather than responding to straightforward inquiries, administration spokesmen pump reporters for the information they have so they can undermine it. Attkisson calls this technique “pump and mine.” The administration then plants slanted leaks to friendly bloggers and reporters; next, it characterizes any advances in the story as “old news.”
Attkisson also shows how the administration, using a technique she calls “controversialization,” disparages any sources and reporters who move the story forward. As she recounts in the book, Attkisson has extensive personal experience being at the receiving end of this technique.
She singles out Media Matters as the main outlet that moves administration spin into the mainstream media. As Attkisson demonstrates, however, the power of Media Matters derives from the complicity and cooperation of its many allies in the media, i.e., the many Obama allies in the media.
Perhaps the greatest PR coup of all is that the administration’s expert spinners successfully lead the media by the nose down the path of concluding there’s no true controversy unless there’s a paper trail that lays blame directly on the president’s desk. Time and again, with each scandal and each damaging fact, Democrats and the White House read from the script that says, “there’s no evidence President Obama knew” or “there’s no evidence of direct White House involvement.” Anything short of a signed confession from the president is deemed a phony Republican scandal, and those who dare to ask questions are crazies, partisans, or conspiracy theorists. . . .
Under President Obama, the press dutifully regurgitates the line “no evidence of White House involvement,” ignoring the fact that if any proof exists, it would be difficult to come by under an administration that fails to properly respond to Freedom of Information Act requests, routinely withholds documents from Congress, and claims executive privilege to keep documents secret.
Stonewalled covers two kinds of scandal: first, the various scandals within the Obama administration; second, the scandalous treatment of these White House scandals by CBS News. With each White House scandal, Attkisson demonstrates the success, more or less, of the Obama administration’s scandal management inside the newsroom at CBS.
Her account of CBS’s journalistic dereliction culminates in her description of how CBS suppressed a portion of the September 12, 2012, 60 Minutes interview with President Obama — the precise portion in which Obama clearly explained why he did not characterize Benghazi as a “terrorist” attack. The release of this interview might have been of interest, shall we say, in the aftermath of the second Obama–Romney debate, during which Obama successfully promulgated the line — the lie — that he had very quickly characterized Benghazi as a “terrorist” attack, with a timely assist from CNN moderator Candy Crowley, who broke with debate-moderator protocol and backed up Obama’s lie. It was only after Attkisson and others inside CBS News belatedly discovered the relevant portion of the 60 Minutes interview, and after they kicked up some dust about it, that CBS News posted the segment, online only, the weekend before the election — far too late to matter.
Attkisson bookends her accounts of the Obama-administration scandals she covered with the story of what she describes as coordinated intrusions into her telephones and computers. She was working on the Benghazi story when a friendly source “connected to a three-letter agency” offered a surprising observation. “The administration is likely monitoring you — based on your reporting,” the source advised her. She had, in fact, been having troubles with her phones and computers, which were behaving oddly.
Three sets of experts — including experts hired by CBS — examined her computers. All reached the same conclusion: She was the victim of computer intrusion and monitoring. One expert found classified government documents secreted in her hard drive, though she had not placed them there and had nothing to do with them. She believes that they were placed there by the intruders for use against her at an appropriate time.
CBS issued this statement on the intrusions:
Attkisson’s computer was accessed by an unauthorized, external, unknown party on multiple occasions in late 2012. . . . [F]orensic analysis revealed an intruder had executed commands that appeared to involve search and exfiltration of data. The party also used sophisticated methods to remove all possible indications of unauthorized activity, and alter system times to cause further confusion.
The experts retained by Attkisson concluded that the intrusion into her computers was probably perpetrated by a government agency with highly sophisticated software that is proprietary to the government.
The Department of Justice has issued two statements on Attkisson’s case. In response to Attkisson’s first public mention of her experience, in the course of a radio interview, the Department of Justice said:
To our knowledge, the Justice Department has never “compromised” Ms. Attkisson’s computers, or otherwise sought any information from or concerning any telephone, computer, or other media device she may own or use.
Attkisson has called this Justice Department statement “a quasi-denial.” Who is the “we” encompassed in “our”? she asks. She continues:
The entire Justice Department? Did officials really, in the blink of an eye, conduct an investigation and question 113,543 Justice Department employees? That’s impressive! I’m still waiting for answers to Freedom of Information Act requests that I filed with them years ago, but they’re able to provide this semi-definitive statement within minutes of the question being posed.
Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn, just retired, sent Attorney General Holder a letter making broad inquiries on behalf of Attkisson. Attkisson quotes the response submitted to him by the DOJ:
Your letter asks whether the Department is responsible for incidents in 2012 in which the computer of Sharyl Attkisson, a CBS reporter, was allegedly hacked by an unauthorized party. The Department is not. It also does not appear that CBS or Ms. Attkisson followed up with the Federal Bureau of Investigation for assistance with these incidents.
Coburn’s letter to Holder had sought information regarding actions taken “[d]uring your tenure as attorney general,” not during 2012. Attkisson drily observes: “Instead of answering the questions at hand, the administration had posed an entirely different question and chosen to answer that one.”
Coburn issued a follow-up letter to the Justice Department pointing out that none of his questions from the previous July had been answered in its December response. The Justice Department has provided no further response.
Attkisson has not let the matter rest. In January, she filed an administrative claim against the government as a predicate to bringing a lawsuit under the Federal Tort Claims Act; separately, she also filed a lawsuit against the government for violation of her constitutional rights.
One does not need to be a seer to predict that the Obama administration will do its level best to ignore Attkisson and her complaints through Obama’s last day in office. Attkisson will no doubt have to await a new administration before she can obtain legal resolution, but perhaps it would not be amiss for Congress to look for answers right now.
— Scott W. Johnson is a Minneapolis attorney and a contributor to the website Power Line.