Plot Thickens on AP Records Scandal

“We did not publish anything until we were assured by high-ranking officials with direct knowledge of the situation, in more than one part of the government, that the national security risk was over and no one was in danger. The only deal was to hold the story until any security risk was resolved.”

-- Associated Press spokeswoman Erin Madigan White talking to the Washington Post about the agency agreeing to hold a story about a foiled terror plot.

The Associated Press is suggesting that the reason the agency’s reporters and lawyers were the targets of a sweeping records seizure by the Department of Justice is not that national security was at risk, but rather the publicity the administration was seeking.

In a move familiar to reporters covering covert operations, the CIA had asked the AP to hold off on the May 2012 scoop about a foiled effort by Islamist militants in Yemen to try another underwear bomb, like the one a militant botched in 2009.


The Washington Post reports today that after sitting on the story for five days, AP got the all clear from the CIA on national security on May 7, 2012. But there was a still a problem: the White House was planning to announce the operation the next day and the AP story would step on the big announcement.

The spy agency then made a proposal: wait one more day and then the AP could have the story as an exclusive for an hour. The Post says that while the news service was mulling the idea, a White House official called and nixed the one-hour exclusive, telling AP that they could have five minutes of exclusivity before the administration started pushing out the story.

Remember the timing here. This was just after President Obama had celebrated the one-year anniversary of the killing of Usama bin Laden and the administration was or would soon be pushing out stories about kill lists and a decimated al Qaeda. As Republican Mitt Romney was trying to mount his general election challenge, Team Obama was very much focused on burnishing the president’s commander-in-chief credentials.

A story about the CIA infiltrating a group of Islamist militants in Yemen and foiling an attack on the homeland, therefore, would be a thing of great political value, especially if it could be unveiled just so. If the AP went with a less glorious version of events not only would it deny the administration the chance to depict the mission in the most favorable light, it would also turn an announcement into a confirmation. It is hard to get news organizations to bite on a story about something that didn’t happen, and even harder when the thing that didn’t happen has already been reported by the nation’s largest wire service.

AP said no, and went with the story anyway. By the time John Brennan, now Obama’s CIA director but then the president’s top counterterrorism adviser, could make it to ABC News to trumpet the operation, the story was quickly becoming old news.

The strong inference from the AP is that it was not national security but election-year public relations that led to the fight with the White House and that the secret, unprecedented (we think) raid on Associated Press records was something of a reprisal for not playing ball on the timing of the announcement.

Reporters are also familiar with deals cut on publicity lines. Campaigns and agencies often look to avoid having a partial story step on a larger announcement timed for maximal attention. It is far from uncommon to have a flack offer more details and special access in exchange for holding off just a bit longer.

But in those cases, the penalty for not doing the deal is professional. If a reporter won’t cut a deal, he or she can expect the cold shoulder on the next story. Then the reporter has to decide if the scoop is of a high enough value to risk future access. But that’s different than a direct reprisal.

The AP blew off the White House demand for a more beneficial release schedule and the AP ended up being the target of a massive Department of Justice data mining effort that has no doubt chilled many of the sources who provide the daily fodder for the agencies stories.

It would have been fine for the White House to have said the agency would be frozen out on future stories as punishment for not playing ball. But a massive records raid concerning a story that was part of a publicity spat looks dreadful.

The talking points from the administration now being repeated by friendly media outlets are that the president has just had a bit of an unlucky run on the scandal stuff – that he is a victim of coincidental, inevitable failures of a large and unwieldy federal bureaucracy and that Republicans are just piling on.

This echo chamber is hugely unhelpful to the administration. Now is the time to get serious, crack down and show the press and public that the president means business, especially on the AP dragnet and, most urgently, the targeting of the president’s opponents at the IRS.

Team Obama, as obsessed as ever with “winning the day” is trying to mitigate, downplay and move on. Most heinous of all the missteps here has been to treat the IRS scandal as some administrative kerfuffle.

As we learned yesterday, the guy who everyone thought was fired, wasn’t fired. He’s still on the job and will be for another week. The woman who formerly led the office at the center of the scandal has been tasked with enforcing the president’s health law, of all things. This reflects a lack of concern and a misunderstanding of the severity of this moment for the president.

Telling an anxious public that you’re working on it and are now ready to talk about economic stimulus policies and immigration is only going to make it worse. A slightly early retirement for a couple of bureaucrats is not going to cut it. The president’s adversaries were the victims here so he needs to do more than he would if it was his allies in the IRS crosshairs.

What has mostly worked on Benghazi – going slow and waiting for critics to overreach – will not work with the other two scandals. Convincing reporters and voters to take it easy on something that happened in Libya and is bound to be confusing and secretive is a lot easier than doing so on more straightforward stories about corruption in the IRS and bullying the press.

And Now, A Word From Charles

“The president's answer to that question, it was Clintonian.  He was asked if anybody in the White House knew.  He just said ‘I.’  He should have said ‘nobody knew.’  He said just ‘I.’ He didn't say when he was asked about the IRS actions, he didn't say ‘I didn't know about the IRS actions.’  He says ‘I didn't know about the IG report.’  If you didn't know about any of this and never heard any complaints, then he would have said I’ didn't know anything about this at all.’”

-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET  at