Avril Haines' extraordinary professional rise hit a new plateau this week when President Obama appointed the 43-year-old White House national security attorney to become the CIA's deputy director, replacing longtime career officer Michael Morell.
Haines' CIA promotion came just two months after Obama had nominated her to take over as legal counsel for the State Department. Haines will become the highest-ranking woman ever at the CIA, just as she would have become the first female legal counsel a the State Department, if Obama hadn't changed his mind about her promotion. Haines' appointment comes in the wake of last week's news that Susan Rice had been appointed Obama's new national security advisor, and that Samantha Power would replace Rice as the United States' Ambassador to the United Nations.
Yet as women continue to rise in the Obama administration and on Capitol Hill, some in the press still apply a shockingly different standard when covering accomplished women in Washington, D.C.
The day after the White House made the Haines appointment, the Daily Beast published a strange article revealing how the CIA's new number two, when she was 25-years-old, used to host erotic readings at the Baltimore book store and restaurant she co-owned. (Salon accused the Daily Beast of "slut-sham[ing]" Haines.)
Thursday marked the first time the site had ever written about the national security star of the Obama administration, according to Daily Beast's archives. And in its first time writing about Haines, the Daily Beast focused on detailing her erotica readings from 20 years ago. And in an effort to juice up the article, the Daily Beast cherry picked explicit passages of erotica and suggested Haines may have read two them decades ago - "aloud" and in public! (i.e. "He mounted her, parting her legs, giving the white inner flesh of her thighs a soft deep pinch.")
Also included in the profile was a mention that Haines' father is very wealthy, and that when she was younger living in Baltimore, and when not reading erotica, Haines often rehabbed her apartment in "jeans or a pair of shorts."
This is all very weird.
I don't even have to point that if a male attorney had quickly ascended to become the CIA's second-in-command at the age of 43, no news outlets would be reporting on the sex-filled books he read during his post-college years (what's wrong, or newsworthy about erotica?), or the type of shorts he wore when he was in his twenties. Or for that mater, would they likely mention his rich daddy.
The Daily Beast misfire came just weeks after The Washington Post published an item detailing the "fabulous shoes" White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler wears to work. (One pair "has a jeweled paisley pattern.")
And earlier this month, the New York Times explored the pressing issues of what kind of handbags are most popular on Capitol Hill:
The Congress of yore might conjure images of spittoons and old male politicians with briefcases, but the 113th has ushered in a historic number of women -- 20 in the Senate, and 81 in the House -- and with them a historic number of handbags.
Handbags? High heels? Erotica? These are the windows through which we should view powerful female players in Washington, D.C.? Shouldn't we be past these shallow forms of gender identification?
During Richard Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign, the president's White House counsel, John Dean, met with the head of the Internal Revenue Service, Johnnie Mac Walters, and presented him with an envelope. Inside was a list of approximately 200 names -- the names of Nixon's political enemies and with it came the understanding that the IRS begin investigating the "enemies list" and perhaps start sending some people to jail.
Stunned, Walters sealed the White House list, locked it in a safe and later fended off complaints from Nixon aide John Ehrlichman about the IRS's "foot-dragging tactics."
Two years later, on December 22, 1974, with Nixon having resigned from the Watergate scandal, the New York Times' Seymour Hersh published a front-page blockbuster, headlined: "HUGE C.I.A. OPERATIONS REPORTED IN U.S. AGAINST ANTIWAR FORCES."
Hersh detailed how the CIA under Nixon hatched "an elaborate and secret domestic" spying operation built around illegal wiretapping and the reading of mail. Additionally, the Times confirmed "that intelligence files on at least 10,000 American citizens were maintained by a special unit of the CIA. "
The report sparked the creation of the Church Committee in Congress, which soon uncovered years worth of intelligence abuse inside the CIA, FBI and IRS, among others. Many of the abuses came at the request of the Nixon White House.
Keep those two historical points in mind and consider that Rush Limbaugh in recent days has been insisting Nixon "never even dreamed" of using the IRS has a political weapon, or of breaking the law by spying on Americans.
The backdrop of Limbaugh's clumsy rewriting of history, of course, is the current Obama administration controversies surrounding the IRS and its inappropriate targeting of conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status, as well as the revelations of widespread domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency, which continues to collect metadata, such as phone numbers and the duration of phone calls, from telephone providers. (Keep in mind, nowhere in the NSA or the IRS stories has evidence emerged that Obama or the White House ordered any individual be targeted for surveillance or IRS scrutiny.)
The controversies swirling around the IRS and the NSA are significant ones that raise legitimate questions about the scope and power of the federal government. But full-time Obama critics like Limbaugh can't stop inventing facts. They also can't stop trying to bolster "scandal" claims by making absurd comparisons to Nixon's previous criminal behavior; a hollow pattern that's been persistent throughout Obama's time in office.
Locked in his partisan perspective, Limbaugh now says both the IRS and NSA stories are far worse than the crimes of the Nixon administration. "Most people think Nixon did something ten times as bad as what's happening now," said Limbaugh on June 10. "But the truth is Nixon never even dreamed of this."
Added the host [emphasis added]:
You think about Nixon and Watergate, Nixon is a piker compared to what's happening here with Obama. Literally. I'm not even speaking to you politically. Nixon didn't even dream of the stuff that's happening. Nixon did not use the IRS against people.
Limbaugh though, manages to get the history comically wrong.
President Obama's decision to appoint Susan Rice as his national security advisor set off a day's worth of high-voltage caterwauling at Fox News on Wednesday. Still angry about Rice's uncontroversial role in using the intelligence community's talking points during interviews in the wake of the terrorist attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya last year, Fox talkers guests were apoplectic about the appointment.
One of the most demeaning, gender-based reactions from the Fox community came from Andrea Tantaros and Sean Hannity, both of whom suggested the president selected Rice to the prestigious national security position as a way to inoculate himself. That he specifically selected a woman in order to protect himself politically.
So no, the sexist attacks weren't even camouflaged yesterday. And yes, it came in the wake of the recent Fox decision to host a panel discussion about women's earning power and only invite male guests, many of whom launched sexist volleys against working mothers. And yes, it came in the wake of Fox's decision this week to dramatically downplay the importance of Congressional hearings on the topic of sexual assault in the military.
That mindset ran through much of the Rice denunciations. On his radio show, Hannity claimed Obama made the Rice choice "with the hopes that Republicans will now be beating up - in the public eye - a woman."
And on Fox's The Five, Tantaros stressed that Rice only got the job because she was a woman being used by the president [emphasis added]:
This administration uses women as human shields. And the last time he nominated her, or her name was floated he didn't officially nominate her, he came out and he said, 'You want to go after somebody, Lindsey Graham, John McCain, come after me. She had nothing to do with Benghazi.'
I think they nominate her to set up a trap for Republicans to go after women. They're nominating Samantha Power. Hillary Clinton was Obama's human shield on Benghazi.
First, a human shield -- the act of using civilians to fend off a military or law enforcement attack -- is a tactic often used by cowards who are possibly also criminals. The claim Obama implements "human shields" conjures up deadly, violent imagery and is wildly inappropriate when discussing the President of the United States and one of his most senior advisers.
Secondly, that's an odious double shot of gender politics from Hannity and Tantaros, suggesting Obama isn't man enough to fend for himself so he has to hide behind women. At the same time it denigrates an extraordinary achiever like Rice by assigning her the subservient role of puppet and political pawn.
And in this case, the central claim makes no sense.
Answering reporters' questions in the White House Rose Garden last month, President Obama vowed to address the just-uncovered IRS controversy, in which the agency inappropriately targeted conservative groups that were applying for tax-exempt status. "We will be putting in new leadership that will be able to make sure that we...hold accountable those who have taken these outrageous actions," Obama said on May 16.
Obama announced that the acting IRS director was leaving, and pledged to work with Congress and institute new safeguards, in part by implementing some of the recommendations included in the newly released inspector general's report.
"The good news is it's fixable," Obama said. "And it's in everyone's best interest to work together to fix it." At the time, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said that the president "set exactly the right tone."
Less than three weeks later, Issa appeared on CNN and called White House Press Secretary Jay Carney a "paid liar." He also dangled for journalists some cherry-picked excerpts from Congressional interviews with a handful of IRS workers, stressed he was convinced the IRS targeting had been done "in all likelihood" for political purposes, and assured viewers it was just a matter of time before he uncovered enough evidence to prove his claims. ("We're getting to proving it," he said.)
In other words, what started out, briefly, as a bipartisan effort to fix a serious federal government problem, and what started out with Obama admitting that mistakes were made and committing to holding people accountable, quickly degenerated into the latest partisan pursuit inside Washington.
The focus of Issa's hearings is no longer fixing a problem. It's been shifted to affixing political blame. Rather than asking how the IRS mistake can be avoided in the future, the questions now being asked revolve around politics and the process.
And it was Issa's June 2 CNN appearance, where he uncorked wild charges about the IRS story (charges often based on his "gut" instincts), that signaled to the press that Republicans were, without question, treating the IRS story as purely a political and partisan endeavor. And it was Issa's rhetoric that helped mold the larger media narrative surrounding the story: GOP targets the White House in IRS probe. That in turn produces puts Democrats on the defensive, forced to disprove Republican charges, even though the allegations aren't grounded in fact.
Much the same way the press followed Republicans' lead and allowed the terrorist attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi to be turned into an almost an exclusively partisan pursuit, the same pattern has emerged with the IRS story.
Deeply concerned about the state of the Justice Department in the wake of revelations that it had seized phone records from journalists as part of national security leak investigations, Fox News contributor Laura Ingraham on Sunday complained Republican critics were being accused of partisan "overreach" in their attacks. Referencing the previous Bush administration and its famous leak investigation, Ingraham asked on June 2, "How many times did we hear about overreach in the Valerie Plame prosecution? I don't remember one time."
Thinking back, Ingraham can't remember "one time" when special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald was accused of "overreach" as he set out to investigate the unauthorized disclosure of a CIA employee's identity by what was eventually revealed to be high-ranking Bush administration officials. That's odd, because Fox News was relentless in its criticism of Fitzgerald, and often loudly lobbed the very specific allegation that he was guilty of prosecutorial overreach.
Viewed today through the Fox News prism, the Plame investigation represents a prime example of when "the mainstream media chose fiction over fact and politics over principle," according to Sean Hannity. In other words, the Plame investigation was portrayed by Fox News and the right-wing media as a colossal waste of time and denounced as the "criminalization" of politics. The whole fact-finding mission resembled a "witch hunt," as Hannity suggested, with Fitzgerald starring as "the Captain Ahab of the case," according to Fox's Charles Krauthammer.
In fact, when Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff I. Scooter Libby was convicted on March 6, 2007 of lying to the grand jury investigating the Plame case, as well as convicted of obstructing justice by lying to FBI agents, Ingraham herself appeared on Fox and called the verdict "one of the greatest miscarriages of justice that I've seen here in Washington in quite some time." She blamed "overzealous prosecutors" for the Republican mess and denounced the investigation as "typical Washington 'gotcha' politics."
Yet with Obama's Department of Justice now taking on criticism for its media leak inquiries, Ingraham suddenly wants viewers to think conservatives were mute back when an investigator put the Bush administration under the microscope, as she draws a complete blank trying to recall anyone who launched attacks at the Plame inquiry.
The Fox hypocrisy isn't necessarily surprising, but it is helpful in providing context as conservative messengers in the media do their best to ramp up continued Obama "scandal" coverage. It also illustrates Fox's complicated relationship with classified leak investigations. Namely, for years it denounced Obama for not strenuously perusing them. Yet Fox is now strenuously denounces Obama for pursuing leaks too aggressively.
"There are other shoes yet to drop, I have a feeling."
That's how Fox News' Jon Scott, on May 21, wrapped up what has become a truly endless string of Fox segments about the recent Obama administration controversies regarding the IRS, the Department of Justice, and the terror attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya.
Guest Jonah Goldberg agreed with Scott's bad-news-for-Obama assessment: "I don't think we're at the bottom of this by a long stretch."
Indeed, inside the Fox News bubble scandal mania continues to sweep the nation, to the point where on the eve of the Memorial Day weekend holiday the White House was nervous that "the only thing" Americans were going to discuss over backyard barbecues were "the Obama scandals." That, according to the insights of Eric Bolling. (Fact: Polling shows Americans are much more interested in the economy than congressional investigations.)
Never shy about uncorking unprovable, and sometimes laughable, allegations about Obama, the Fox crew in recent days has thrown any semblance of caution to the wind and shifted into conjecture overdrive. Buoyed by the emergence of legitimate administration controversies, and driven by the warped assumption that the president has suffered grave political wounds (polling data confirms he has not), Fox programming now often resembles little more than right-wing bull sessions about pending resignations and shattered second terms.
The irony is there are actual investigations currently underway examining possible wrongdoing within the administration. For instance, it's hard to downplay the significance of the Justice Department's misstep in naming Fox News' James Rosen (or any journalist) as a possible co-conspirator in an FBI request for a search warrant for Rosen's personal emails and phone records.
But Fox News can't be bothered with waiting for official findings and it gets frustrated when criminal cover-ups involving the White House don't emerge. So, convinced that all misconduct emanates directly from the West Wing, Fox programming has become a "scandal" closed loop where kitchen sink what-if's reign supreme.
Reporting that House Republicans are investigating whether Attorney General Eric Holder lied to Congress during his recent testimony about Justice Department seizures of communications records in connection with a national security leak investigation, CNN's Dana Bash misstated key facts of the controversy. In so doing, CNN helped bolster the hollow claims of Republicans -- wildly hyped by Fox News -- that Holder may have perjured himself.
On May 15, Holder appeared before Congress to answer questions about the revelation that the Department of Justice had seized phones records from the Associated Press covering a two-month period and had done so without notifying the news organization. The seizure was part of an investigation of the leak of classified information published by the wire service.
During the hearing, Holder was asked if prosecutors could charge journalists with a crime if they published leaked material.
Holder said that was a bad idea: "With regard to the potential prosecution of the press for the disclosure of material - that is not something I've ever been involved in, heard of, would think would be wise policy." [Emphasis added.]
Since then, it was revealed that Fox News' James Rosen had been described as "at the very least, either as an aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator" in a 2010 FBI affidavit in support of warrant seeking permission to look through the reporter's phone records as well as the contents of his personal email account. The FBI was looking for correspondences with then-State Department security adviser Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, who has been charged with leaking classified information to Rosen about North Korea in 2009. Holder approved of the warrant request. (Rosen was never charged with a crime.)
Using his May 15 testimony, Republicans and Fox hosts have pounced, claiming Holder contradicted himself.
As CNN explained it (emphasis added):
Though he testified in a May 15 Congressional hearing that he's "never heard of" the press being potentially charged for obtaining leaked material, it has since been reported that he signed off on the Justice Department's decision to seek a search warrant in 2010 for Fox News reporter James Rosen's private e-mails as part of a leak probe.
That was CNN's first mistake: In the Congressional testimony cited, Holder did not address the idea of charging reporters with a crime for "obtaining leaked material," as CNN suggested in its report. Instead, Holder said he had never been involved with potentially charging a reporter for "the disclosure of material." (i.e. Obtaining and disclosing materials are two different acts.)
In one of his final opinions as a Supreme Court Justice, Hugo Black in the 1971 Pentagon Papers case wrote that "The Government's power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government." The Court's 6-3 decision granted the Washington Post and New York Times permission to resume publishing a comprehensive and classified government history of the Vietnam War. The permission was granted over the "national security" objections of the Nixon administration. Black's opinion stressed that the "press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people."
The Pentagon Papers case revolved around the more traditional press debate regarding prior restraint: if and when the government has the right to stop news organizations from disseminating sensitive information. The Supreme Court's landmark 1931 media ruling, Near v. Minnesota, declared that almost all forms of prior restraint were unconstitutional. One of the few exceptions included issues of national security.*
Of course, the recent Obama administration controversies surrounding freedom of the press revolve around national security and the intense prosecutorial efforts by the government to weed out leakers of classified information. Rather than trying to stop journalists from reporting national security news, federal law enforcement seems preoccupied with snooping around, in increasingly clandestine ways, and ensnaring reporters in criminal investigations.
Whether it was the Department of Justice's wild overreach in seizing phone records of more than 20 separate telephone lines used by Associated Press editors and reporters, or the Department's more focused, yet even more troubling, information grab of a Fox News reporter, the practice is wrong and shortsighted. It's also un-American.
The Founding Fathers had the foresight to carve out extraordinary privileges and protections for the press, and for centuries they have endured. So why now turn our storied First Amendment into the Sort Of First Amendment or the When It's Convenient First Amendment?
Imagine what international observers must be thinking as they watch the U.S. government, in the name of leak investigations, chisel away at one of America's most famous contributions to the democratic way of life: Freedom of the press.
Yet it's also important to note that despite some of the heated rhetoric in recent days, there's little evidence that the federal government is waging some sort of all-out war on journalism (that it's "spying" on reporters), or that it's set out a dangerous new policy to "criminalize" the craft. And no, Fox News certainly hasn't been "targeted" by the Obama administration, despite Fox's plaintive cries of victimhood in recent days. (There's certainly no evidence to back up Shepard Smith's baseless on-air claim that the Department of Justice "went into" Fox News computer servers and "pulled things out.")
New York Times columnist Bill Keller thinks President Obama should appoint failed Whitewater sleuth Kenneth Starr to investigate the Internal Revenue Service's improper scrutiny of conservative groups. And yes, Keller adopts the conventional wisdom that so-called scandals in recent weeks have "knocked" Obama's "second term off course." (Public polling suggests otherwise.)
But let's now marvel at the columnist's fantastic claim that if Obama appointed that special counsel the partisan clouds would magically part in Washington, D.C. and Congress and the press, would suddenly focus on the nation's pressing duties. Keller insists the "scandal circus on Capitol Hill is a terrible distraction" and that a special counsel would allow Beltway players to "turn their attention to all that unfinished business," such as immigration reform and passing a budget.
This is part of the pundit fantasy school of writing that has been persistent throughout the Obama presidency and it goes like this: If Obama would just do X (i.e. schmooze more, be less partisan, appoint a special counsel, or just lead), Republicans would cooperate with him legislatively because Republicans are honest brokers who have a deep desire to address the nation's most pressing issues. And the only real obstacle to progress is the fact that Obama can't figure out what makes Republicans tick. He just doesn't get it.
It's that mindset that leads to posts like the one from Keller, suggesting that if the president would move to further criminalize the IRS controversy, that would somehow lower the partisan temperature and would allow Republicans to get back to what they really want to do, which is work with the president to pass pressing legislation.
What Keller conveniently ignores is that Republicans have already made it obvious that they don't matter what the Obama does, it doesn't matter what personal approach he takes, they're going to oppose him across the board.
How else would Keller explain the GOP's historic opposition to emergency relief for Hurricane Sandy? The GOP's historic opposition to the nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense? The GOP's refusal to pass gun legislation that enjoyed nearly universal support among Americans? And the GOP's mindless, time-wasting obsession with trying to "repeal" Obama's health care reform?
Let's take a closer look a recent example of radical Republican tactics and place it in the context of Keller's claim that a special counsel would produce Congressional productivity.
On May 9, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee was scheduled to vote Gina McCarthy's nomination to head the Environmental Protection Agency out of committee and send it to the Senate for a full vote. But thirty minutes before the meeting was scheduled to begin, Republican notified Democrats that all eight Republican members were boycotting the vote, thereby making it impossible to move McCarthy's nomination forward. Republicans complained that the nominee hadn't sufficiently answered questions submitted by committee Republicans, even though she had already responded to more than 1,000 written queries.
In the end, McCarthy was approved by the committee, but the Republican stalling tactics represented, "an unprecedented attempt to slow down the confirmation process and undermine the agency," as former Republican Congressman Sherwood Boehlert recently lamented.
That's the backdrop for Keller's declaration that appointing a special counsel to spend months investigating the IRS would eliminate partisan wrangling and clear the way for cooperation.
It's pure Beltway pundit fantasy.
Appearing on Fox & Friends, Roger Ailes' biographer Zev Chafets joined host Steve Doocy in toasting Fox News' coverage of the so-called Benghazi scandal. Doocy was positively giddy about how Fox had been out way ahead of the mainstream press on the story of last September's terror attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Lybya. The host credited his boss, Ailes, for leading Fox's obsessive Benghazi charge for the last eight months.
"Now everybody else is catching up," Doocy crowed on May 16.
Chafets agreed ("this is Fox News at its best") and claimed that the White House had tried to stifle the controversy because "it doesn't obviously want the story to be about its incompetence in a situation in which people could have been saved and evidently nobody tried."
Did you note the dark irony there? In raising a glass to Fox's Benghazi coverage, Chafets peddled one of Fox's favorite Benghazi lies: "Nobody" had tried to save the Americans who came under deadly fire that night.
Ever since ABC News' bogus "exclusive" last week regarding administration emails about the editing and writing process of the talking points issued in the wake of the Benghazi terror strike, Fox News had been taking one long extended victory tour, claiming its eight-month campaign to demonize the president and to spread nearly nonstop misinformation about the terror attack had been fully vindicated.
"The mainstream media finally catches up to the Benghazi scandal," jabbed Chris Wallace on May 10. On America Live, host Martha MacCallum bragged, "When you look at Fox's coverage of Benghazi, we've been establishing the facts from the get-go." And right-wing blogger Jim Hoft cheered Fox's ball-spiking in the end zone with the headline, "FOX News Gloats Over Benghazi Coverage... We Told You So!"
The Fox team has also been rallied by their Benghazi enablers in Congress, with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) insisting Ailes "deserves credit" if there's a full Benghazi investigation. "Thank God for Fox," cheered Benghazi critic Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
But even the most cursory review of Fox's obsessive Benghazi coverage reveals it to be a train wreck of epic proportions. In fact, it represents a textbook study in why people, and especially journalists, should use extraordinary caution whenever they're tempted to take seriously Fox's editorial content.