Judicial Watch is a conservative activist group that has been one of the organizations driving the media narrative on Hillary Clinton's emails. They have a history of dishonest activism, promoting conspiracy theories, and pushing false or misleading narratives.
The organization was formed in the 1990s by conspiracy theorist Larry Klayman, who used the technique of filing spurious lawsuits in an attempt to bring down the Clinton administration. It is now headed by Tom Fitton, who has continued Klayman's methods in an ongoing campaign to antagonize the Obama administration, Hillary Clinton, and other Democrats.
The organization has played a key role in the ongoing controversy over the email system Hillary Clinton used as secretary of state. Records obtained from the State Department by Judicial Watch have served as fodder in the media and for the House Select Committee on Benghazi.
This week, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the frontrunner for the soon-to-be vacant Speaker's office, boasted on Fox, "Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she's untrustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened, had we not fought and made that happen."
Judicial Watch has tried to stake its own claim to denting Clinton, with Fitton claiming in a press release, "Judicial Watch has had more success investigating the IRS, Benghazi, and Clinton email scandals than any House committee under Boehner's direction."
Since it was reported in March that Clinton used a private email server, Judicial Watch has been mentioned dozens of times in reports on the story, including in major outlets like Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and USA Today.
But if history is any indication, media outlets risk credibility and accuracy by relying on Judicial Watch.
The media's reliance on Judicial Watch's work comes with a significant risk, as the conservative group often overreaches in its attacks on Democrats and progressives.
For example, on September 24, Judicial Watch released records it had received from the State Department which it claimed "reveal former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton personally signed the authorization for Huma Abedin, her then-deputy chief of staff, to become a special government employee."
The New York Times reported on Judicial Watch's findings, writing that the documents "show that Mrs. Clinton personally signed forms establishing a new title and position for the aide, Huma Abedin, in March 2012." Politico, Fox News, and other outlets also published stories based on the document.
Those stories were wrong.
As the Times reported a few days later, the document that Judicial Watch had given to the media had the signature redacted "in a box intended for the aide's supervisor," and the assumption was apparently made that Sec. Clinton had signed it. But later a copy of the document was given to the Times and it showed that it was signed by Cheryl Mills, who was then Clinton's chief of staff.
In other words, the entire premise of the Judicial Watch release was false (the uncorrected headline remains on the Times website).
Judicial Watch has often started stories that are simply untrue and collapse almost immediately under scrutiny.
For example, Judicial Watch alleged that the Obama administration had appointed 45 "czars" to serve under him, a claim which then became the basis for a viral email attacking the president. As explained by PolitiFact in 2014, Judicial Watch stretched the truth by listing senior advisor Valerie Jarrett as a czar, crediting the Obama administration for czars created under the Bush administration, and describing Ray Mabus as the "Oil Czar" when in reality he was Secretary of the Navy, a Senate-confirmed position.
Judicial Watch accused then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi of engaging in "boorish demands for military travel" that are "more about partying than anything else" and highlighted expenditures of "$101,429.14 ... for in-flight expenses, including food and alcohol." After conservative outlets regurgitated the claims, FactCheck.org investigated and found that "costs are not as high as critics claim, and they're comparable to those of her Republican predecessor."
Last year, Judicial Watch alleged that a company had been sued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) "for requiring workers to speak English." But in reality, the EEOC said it sued the company for violating its employees' rights by subjecting them to a "sham performance improvement plan" that focused on their English language skills.
Judicial Watch has concocted conspiracy theories that end up being amplified by conservative and mainstream media, as well as elected officials.
Judicial Watch claimed that the Justice Department was helping to "organize and manage rallies and protests against George Zimmerman," the Florida man who shot and killed teenager Trayvon Martin. In reality, the unit of the DOJ was sent to Florida in order to defuse tensions in the community, and as the Orlando Sentinel reported, they "reached out to the city's spiritual and civic leaders to help cool heated emotions."
Judicial Watch claimed that the Islamic State (ISIS) had set up a terrorist camp in Mexico "just a few miles from El Paso, Texas," facilitating the smuggling of terrorists into the United States. Conservative media outlets picked up Judicial Watch's claim.
Authorities in the United States and Mexico rejected the group's fearmongering.
A spokesman for the National Security Council said there was "no indication that this claim has any validity to it," while an FBI spokesperson told PolitiFact, "there is no credible information to support" the allegation. The government of Mexico stated: "The government of Mexico dismisses and categorically denies each of the statements made today by the organization Judicial Watch on the alleged presence of ISIS's operating cells throughout the border region." Similarly, the Texas Department of Public Safety said they had "no credible information to corroborate or validate this story."
PolitiFact rated the claim as "false." A similar claim by Judicial Watch in September of 2014 became the basis of a statement by Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) that ISIS is "present in Ciudad Juarez" in Mexico. Government agencies denied that allegation as well, and PolitiFact rated it "mostly false."
Throughout the Obama administration, there have been repeated news stories discussing the cost of travel arrangements for the Obama administration, particularly for first lady Michelle Obama and her daughters.
These stories have often been based on reports generated by Judicial Watch, and their website boasts an archive of releases on the topic (despite the organization's existence during the Bush administration, the "First Family" Vacations archive is limited to travel from 2010-present).
Many of these releases also exaggerate the truth. In 2010, Judicial Watch alleged that the Obamas went on a "private family safari" at taxpayer expense, but the safari was paid for with the Obama's own funds. They also claimed the trip "was as much an opportunity for the Obama family and friends to go on a safari as it was a trip intended to advance the administration's agenda in Africa" but the schedule was filled with official events:
The six-day trip was dominated by official events and meetings with world leaders. Mrs. Obama met with the South African president's wife, Nompumelelo Ntuli-Zuma; spoke to the Young African Women Leaders Forum; participated in community service events in Johannesburg; visited U.S. embassies and consulates; spoke at the University of Cape Town and met with students from poor communities; held a meeting with Archbishop Desmond Tutu; met with Botswanan president Ian Khama; and gave interviews to several news outlets, including NBC, ABC, BET, and CNN.
Judicial Watch was designed almost two decades ago to use the courts and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to trip up and raise implications about Democrats and other related elected officials. It does so through dishonest claims and inaccurate document releases. Despite their history, the media has continued to rely on them, only to sometimes be caught hyping inaccurate supposed scoops.
Right-wing media are trumpeting a spurious Judicial Watch report claiming that an Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist camp has been set up near the Texas border, allowing ISIS terrorists to be smuggled into the United States, despite the fact that U.S. federal law agencies say the claim is unsubstantiated.
An April 14 report from Judicial Watch, a conservative government watchdog group, claimed that the terrorist group "ISIS is operating a camp just a few miles from El Paso, Texas," and ISIS terrorists are being smuggled "through the porous border," which is being targeted due to "understaffed municipal and country police forces."
Right-wing media outlets quickly echoed the dubious claim, and Fox News host Sean Hannity highlighted the Judicial Watch report on the April 14 edition of his radio show. Hannity read from the report, calling it "a very dangerous story," and stoked fears that Islamic State terrorists are being smuggled into the U.S., saying "we have said so many times for so many years that we need to secure America's borders." Hannity concluded by asking, "what are you going to do about that President Obama, anything?"
But federal law agencies involved with border security have said the Judicial Watch report of Islamic State terrorists near the U.S.-Mexico border is "unverified."
Right-wing media have a history of echoing dubious Judicial Watch reports to incite fear about terrorists crossing the U.S. border. Fox News parroted the group's September 2014 claim that a terrorist attack from the U.S.-Mexico border was "imminent," although the claim was roundly denounced by terrorism experts and rated "mostly false" by Politifact.
Fox News host Gretchen Carlson baselessly accused the IRS of knowingly canceling a contract with email archiving company Sonasoft in order to hide emails connected to the alleged targeting of tax exempt organizations. But Sonasoft itself debunked these allegations after it revealed that the IRS never had a contract for its email archiving software.
On the June 27 edition of The Real Story, during a discussion on the IRS' lost emails with Judicial Watch's Tom Fitton, Carlson referenced a story from Power Line blog speculating on the purportedly suspicious timing of the IRS' cancellation of the Sonasoft contract. Carlson alleged that the IRS canceled Sonasoft's contract because "they knew Sonasoft would then delete those emails."
But I want to switch gears just for a minute with regard to this back up system, this Sonasoft company that the IRS cancelled their account with. Because I know that you believe that the timing seems somewhat suspicious, number one. But could there be a deeper meaning as to why that was cancelled at that particular time because, you know, other people are suspecting right now that quite deliberately they cancelled that account because they knew that Sonasoft would then delete those emails.
Carlson didn't offer any concrete evidence to support her claims that the IRS cancelled its contract with Sonasoft to hide IRS emails. In fact, Sonasoft never had access to any IRS emails.
As part of the latest hoax about the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, Fox News is distorting a document recently unearthed by the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch.
Fox and Judicial Watch are trying to keep alive the phony right-wing narrative that the Obama administration somehow covered up the attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, in which four Americans were killed.
A December 12 FoxNews.com article about the Judicial Watch documents says, "Newly released documents show an official at the State Department urged a contractor providing security at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi not to respond to media inquiries, in the wake of the September 2012 terrorist attack."
Thus far, the only portion of the "documents" that Judicial Watch has released is an out-of-context, three-sentence quote from an email sent by State Department contracting officer Jan Visintainer to Blue Mountain Group, a firm that helped provide security at the diplomatic post in Benghazi. The email is dated September 26, 2012 -- about two weeks after the attacks.
In reality, the quote from the email shows that Blue Mountain Group first suggested declining to speak with the media, and Visintainer agreed that this was the correct course. Visintainer also said he spoke about the matter with public affairs personnel at the State Department.
Here is the entirety of the quote cited by Judicial Watch and Fox News:
"Thank you so much for informing us about the media inquiries. We notified our public affairs personnel that they too may receive some questions. We concur with you that at the moment the best way to deal with the inquiries is to either be silent or provide no comments."
Yet, in a blog post misleadingly titled "State Dept. Ordered Benghazi Security Co. to Dodge Media," Judicial Watch called this email "scandalous."
No matter. Fox News and others in the conservative media are more than happy to forward this latest exaggeration to continue to push their Benghazi hoax.
Image via Steve Rhodes
Rush Limbaugh seized on a report that government officials attended rallies related to George Zimmerman to accuse the Department of Justice of "instigating race riots" when in fact, the officials acted as peacekeepers to "defuse community anger."
On his radio show, Limbaugh read from a Judicial Watch post which claimed that a DOJ unit called the Community Relations Service (CRS) "deployed to Sanford, FL to organize and manage rallies against Zimmerman." The post highlighted documents obtained via Freedom of Information Act requests which detailed spending on activities such as providing "technical assistance for the preparation of possible marches and rallies related to the fatal shooting of a 17 year old African American male."
Limbaugh claimed the documents proved that the DOJ was "organizing anti-Zimmerman rallies," going on to say that "the United States government has been converted by Obama and [Eric] Holder into a community organizing agitator bunch." Limbaugh concluded that "this regime saw an opportunity to turn something into a profoundly racial case for the express purpose of ripping the country apart":
But the documents do not show the CRS organizing rallies against Zimmerman, only providing support and technical assistance for them. In fact, as the Miami Herald reported, the unit worked to "defuse community anger hardening along the fault lines of race, color and national origin":
Conservative websites are claiming a new release of documents show that the "White House" gave "classified information" to filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal for their upcoming film about the Osama bin Laden raid. However, even the group that released those documents, Judicial Watch, does not claim that the "White House" gave Bigelow and Boal "classified information."
Right-wing media have attacked a proposed Obama administration rule change that would reduce the amount of time required for undocumented immigrants who are immediate relatives of American citizens to apply for residency as "stealth amnesty" by a "lawless regime." But the proposed rule change would allow eligible immigrants to obtain a lawful return visa without a long separation from their families; moreover, immigrant-rights activists have said that the current system encourages people to remain here illegally.
I've spent a good chunk of this week arguing that Judicial Watch, the right-wing "good government" watchdog, is actually a collection of hackish partisans who use their watchdog status as a fig leaf for fabricating counterfactual anti-Obama narratives.
But I'm tired of doing that. So instead, I'll let Judicial Watch do it for me.
Here's Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton arguing, in all seriousness, that the Obama administration refuses to release the photos of Osama bin Laden's corpse because they are "embarrassed" by "our victory."
FOIA is a disclosure statute, and the public has an affirmative right to know. We're not after legitimate secrets related to operational or intelligence matters. But the historical record of Osama bin Laden's death should be released to the American people as the law requires.
I get the feeling that the Obama administration doesn't want to release these photos because it is embarrassed both by our victory in killing bin Laden and the preposterous burial at sea.
As I've pointed out previously, the Obama administration has no problem releasing documents that the left thinks will embarrass the United States -- say, for example, Obama's selective release of documents disparaging "enhanced interrogation techniques" over the objections of his own national security officials. But when it comes to documents that show the heroism of our military? No deal.
He killed Osama bin Laden.
He instructed Leon Panetta to revamp and refocus the CIA's hunt for Bin Laden, ordered the high-risk military action that took out the Al Qaeda chief, monitored the assault from the White House situation room, delivered a national address announcing Bin Laden's death, thanked the military for their role in the successful operation, and thanked the intelligence community for hunting Bin Laden down.
And all this was done with an overriding sense of shame?
I have to wonder if Tom Fitton is even capable of recognizing embarrassment when he sees it. Only someone incapable of feeling any shame would make an argument this foolish.
Judicial Watch's pearl-clutching "report" on the cost of Michelle Obama's trip to Africa is falling apart pretty quickly.
As I pointed out yesterday, what Judicial Watch tried to paint as a "vacation" was actually an official trip in which the First Lady met with foreign dignitaries and world leaders. She went on a private safari with her children and other family members, but that was paid for by the family. So Judicial Watch had to cherry-pick a few numbers and gloss over important context to gin up some insincere outrage over the fact that the First Lady's travel expenses were paid for with tax dollars. (When Laura Bush traveled to Africa with her kids on the taxpayer dime and went on a private safari, Judicial Watch kept schtum).
Last night, ABC's Jake Tapper spoke to officials at the White House who poked a couple more holes in the Judicial Watch report.
Regarding the $424,000 price tag Judicial Watch calculated for use of the Air Force jet:
"The number stated is misconstrued and out of context," says a senior White House official. "The hourly rate is not the marginal cost of operating the plane -- it is an accounting figure that prices in a number of fixed costs from maintaining the Air Force fleet for this kind of plane over a year. For example, it includes estimated replacement parts, depreciation, repairs, and costs that would have been incurred regardless of this flight."
And regarding Judicial Watch's claim that the Obama children were designated "senior staff" for the trip:
"The Obama daughters were not listed as Senior Staff -- that only designates the area of the plane where they were seated," says the official. "The Air Force categorizes the passengers by compartment on the plane."
Judicial Watch left out a lot of key information, and what they left in they got wrong. But when you're trying to manufacture anti-Obama narratives under the guise of good-government watchdogging, accuracy isn't really a huge concern.
Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton has taken to the pages of Andrew Breitbart's BigGovernment.com to hype his organization's latest "bombshell" -- a series of mundane emails between FCC Commissioner Michael Copps and media reform organization Free Press regarding the placement of a pro-net neutrality op-ed. As Media Matters has demonstrated, the communications are nothing out of the ordinary. Government officials regularly communicate with outside interest groups and even make arrangements to work with them, like when FCC commissioner Robert M. McDowell gave a speech expressing his opposition to net neutrality at Americans For Prosperity's (AFP) Right Online conference in 2010.
Nevertheless, Fitton and others on the right seem to think they've uncovered a conspiracy of sorts. In his BigGovernment piece, Fitton goes overboard in describing the alleged perfidy his group has discovered, steadily escalating the infraction to something approaching supervillainy:
We recently uncovered documents from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that show officials at the FCC colluded with the radical leftist Free Press organization to publicly push a new plan to regulate the Internet under the FCC's so-called "net neutrality" program.
Judicial Watch uncovered internal correspondence showing unusual coordination by some officials at the FCC and Free Press in pushing the "net neutrality" agenda in the run-up to the controversial FCC vote in December:
So it should come as no surprise that an organization with socialist ties is driving the net neutrality agenda from inside the Obama administration. The FCC is supposed to be an independent agency that follows the law. The American people should be deeply troubled by the fact that the Obama administration, on issue after issue, seems to be run by shadowy leftist organizations.
Mind you, all that Judicial Watch has "uncovered" are emails discussing the placement of an op-ed, and potential speakers for a FCC conference on net neutrality. From this, Fitton starts at "collusion," moves on to "unusual coordination," and then somehow ends up at the Obama administration being "run by shadowy leftist organizations." How he got there is anyone's guess.
It's really maddening that we've reached the point where we can't even have a memorial service without it turning into a partisan witch-hunt.
Armed only with irrational suspicion and the false conjecture of Michelle Malkin, the right-wing group Judicial Watch has apparently launched an investigation into the White House's alleged involvement in "branding" the University of Arizona memorial for the victims of the January 8 mass shooting in Tuscon, at which t-shirts bearing the slogan "Together We Thrive" were distributed. Writing on BigGovernment.com, Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton claims that "many questioned how it was set up and, specifically, whether the White House was involved in the t-shirt controversy."
It's important to note at this point that this claim (which originated as unsupported speculation on Michelle Malkin's blog) has already been debunked by Politifact, which quoted U of A spokespeople saying that the White House had no involvement with the branding of the event, and that the slogan -- which Fitton described as "an obvious play on a popular Obama presidential campaign theme" -- was devised by a university student. (For the comically tenuous link the right is claiming connects the slogan to Obama, click here.)
Nonetheless, Judicial Watch demanded the university send them "any and all communications, contracts or correspondence between the University of Arizona and The White House concerning, regarding or relating to T-shirts bearing the logo 'Together We Thrive: Tucson & America,' distributed to attendees at the January 12, 2011, memorial service for the victims of the January 8, 2011, Tucson shooting."
The result? "On January 20 the University told us it had no documents responsive to our first request."
So, Judicial Watch dug deep and came up with the same result as Politifact: no White House involvement. Case closed, right?
If we are to believe this official response, there are no records showing Obama White House involvement. Not only are we curious, but we're skeptical. And we will push back a bit to ensure we're not being trifled with by yet another government entity that doesn't want to produce embarrassing documents.
Judicial Watch doesn't have any reason to believe that the university is lying to them. They don't have any reason to believe the Obama administration was involved at all. They don't have any explanation as to why the university would construct an elaborate lie about the branding's origin and withhold documents to obscure the White House's involvement.
And yet, they're sure that something fishy is going on, because... well, just because.
Judicial Watch has received much attention from the usual right-wing outlets for its recent mini-report claiming that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spent $2 million in taxpayer money on Air Force aircraft. The press release seems rather deliberately underwritten, suggesting that much, if not all, of that money was spent solely on Pelosi and her immediate family -- for example, their press release's headline states that Pelosi's "Military Travel Cost the United States Air Force $2,100,744.59 over a Two-Year Period." But the release later discloses that the data is actually for "103 Pelosi-led congressional delegations" -- i.e., the congressional delegations set up through the Speaker's office, many of which included other members of Congress as well -- not her personal travel. WorldNetDaily, for one, took that bait.
Judicial Watch is also completely silent about the passenger lists for these CODELs -- perhaps because some of them include Republican members of Congress and their spouses. For instance, Judicial Watch highlighted a May 2008 CODEL to Israel and Baghdad that "included members of Congress and their spouses and cost $17,931 per hour in aircraft alone," as well as a copious stash of alcoholic beverages. Unmentioned by Judicial Watch was that Republican Reps. David Dreier and Adam Putnam were also on that trip (Republican Leader John Boehner was originally scheduled to go as well but later withdrew). Republican members also brought their spouses on Pelosi-led delegations to Europe in 2007 and Europe and India in 2008.
In highlighting how some of these Pelosi-related trips "included members of the House Speaker's family," Judicial Watch curiously fails to mention that family members traveling on Air Force aircraft are generally required to reimburse the government for the cost of flights and food, paying the price of a coach ticket on a commercial airline. Indeed, the authorizations from Pelosi's office for members of her family to travel on CODELs make clear that the "[t]ravel is on a reimbursable basis."
Also glossed over: Pelosi's predecessor as House speaker, Republican Dennis Hastert, also authorized members to bring family members on CODELs. Indeed, the Freedom of Information Act documents Judicial Watch posted to support its attack on Pelosi bear this out -- for instance, a request by Hastert for a 2006 CODEL to Greece, India, and Vietnam shows that of the congressmen going on the trip, all but one were Republican, and all but one brought their wives, including Hastert himself.
Even though Republican Hastert arranged and went on junket-esque CODELs, and even though Republicans were on numerous CODELs arranged by Pelosi, Judicial Watch sees fit to bash only Pelosi.
This appears to be nothing more than the latest round of smearing Pelosi as a prolific abuser of the House speaker's travel privileges. That falsehood-laden accusation was debunked.