Wednesday morning, Benghazi whistleblower attorney Victoria Toensing appeared on Fox News' Fox & Friends as part of a long standing campaign among conservatives to discredit the findings of the Accountability Review Board (ARB) report on the Benghazi attacks, authored by Ambassador Thomas Pickering and former chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen.
Toensing delivered what has become the standard conservative myth -- the claim that the ARB report was a "corrupt cover-up to protect Hillary Clinton." She asserted:
Because they were not thorough. There are all kinds of people they didn't interview. They made false statements and they framed four State Department employees to take the blame away from the higher-ups. They did not interview Hillary. They did not interview her top deputy for security, Pat Kennedy.
That is a lie. Pat Kennedy was interviewed by the ARB, a fact Pickering, one of the authors, has made clear. On May 12, Pickering explicitly told CNN's Candy Crowley, "We interviewed Pat Kennedy." This was also pointed out during the May 8, 2013 House Oversight hearing on Benghazi. Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-VA) addressed the room, stating:
By the way, defend in statements that Undersecretary Kennedy was not interviewed by the ARB by Ambassador Pickering and Admiral Mullen. That is a misstatement of fact. He most certainly was. You can look it up. It is documented. He was interviewed, and he provided evidence. And that evidence was evaluated.
So it is not true that Undersecretary Kennedy was not part of that process. He most certainly was, and I would ask Mr. Chairman that the record so reflect.
In fact, Fox News Host Greta Van Susteren tweeted out this exchange:
So why tell such a blatant lie?
Because Toensing thinks she can get away with it and the right needs to discredit the ARB. Prepared in the aftermath of the attacks on our diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, the report detailed more than two-dozen recommendations on improving security for our State Department personnel overseas. It did not cast blame on then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or President Barack Obama nor did it conform to the narrative conservatives and their allies on Capitol Hill -- namely Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) -- have been selling to the media about Benghazi.
Because both Pickering and Mullen are public servants with reputations beyond reproach, the right has had to work overtime trying to discredit their report.
The simplest way to attack the ARB is to claim their work was incomplete because they failed to interview specific witnesses.
And because the complete list of witnesses who spoke with the ARB remains classified, most often there is no way to respond to these accusations, unless a name was at sometime placed in the public record. Conservatives will continue to make claims about the ARB process, but without citations, the media should keep a watchful eye on which sources they trust.
Fox gave conspiracy theorist and Republican attorney Victoria Toensing a platform to revive repeatedly debunked myths about what happened after the September 2012 attacks on the U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya.
On the August 21 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, Toensing's claims included questions about the legitimacy of the independent Accountability Review Board's (ARB) report on the attacks as a "corrupt cover-up to protect Hillary Clinton" and the myth of Benghazi "whistleblower" and diplomat Gregory Hicks' demotion.
Toensing has propped up claims that have been proven false or misleading, misinformation that Fox News continues to peddle.
Her efforts to question the legitimacy of the ARB report are neither new nor credible. Toensing argued in a May 12 Weekly Standard blog post that the "report was purposefully incomplete and willfully misleading," and she claimed that the investigation did not include interviews with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This claim has been debunked, notably by ARB chairman and career diplomat Thomas Pickering, who said he did speak with Clinton and that their conversation about the Benghazi investigation was "more than sufficient for the preponderance of evidence that we had collected to make our decisions."
During a May 10 interview with radio host Steve Malzberg, Toensing stated that Hicks, her client and Benghazi "whistleblower," was "effectively demoted" as a result of what happened during and after the attacks. This story conflicts with Hicks' own statement during congressional testimony that concerns for his family kept him from returning to Libya.
Fox News Sunday selected Victoria Toensing and Joseph diGenova, attorneys who represented witnesses at a Republican-led hearing on the attacks at a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, for its "power players of the week," an unfortunate choice given that both individuals misled Fox News and its viewers about allegations of threats and intimidation against their clients and about efforts by the administration to prevent their clients from testifying.
Though Fox News Sunday aired certain aspects of Toensing and diGenova's biographies, the segment neglected to mention that the two have a history of poor professional conduct, including criticism from a Democratic congressman for inappropriate behavior and actions while they worked as congressional investigators due to their constant media appearances attacking President Clinton. They were also accused of having a conflict of interest for representing a Republican committee chairman under Justice Department investigation while simultaneously serving as special counsel to the committee in a separate investigation. More recently, Toensing pushed the false claim that outed CIA agent Valerie Plame had not been covert, in addition to other falsehoods.
On April 29, Fox's Special Report aired video of Toensing claiming that people who wanted to testify on Benghazi "have been threatened," which Fox & Friends aired the following morning. Toensing was also cited by Special Report on April 29 in reporting the allegations that "the Obama administration is trying to intimidate potential whistleblowers into silence" and that possible witnesses were having their careers threatened. And a May 6 FoxNews.com article by Fox Washington correspondents James Rosen and Chad Pergram sourced a claim that a witness named Mark Thompson "has been subjected to threats and intimidation by as-yet-unnamed superiors at State, in advance of his cooperation with Congress" to diGenova, who was representing Thompson.
But testimony by the witnesses at a GOP-led hearing on May 8 and subsequent interviews of their attorneys on Fox News revealed that Toensing and diGenova misled the network by claiming that their clients had suffered threats, intimidation, and orders to keep quiet. When asked on Fox's Your World on May 9 about claims that Thompson had been threatened, diGenova replied that Thompson "actually hasn't said that," and explained that his client "didn't feel intimidated."
Gregory Hicks, another witness at the hearing -- represented by Toensing -- explained under questioning that he had not been told not to speak to congressional investigators, only that he was required to have a State Department attorney present while doing so. Hicks also explained that, in contrast to claims that the administration tried to silence him, he was interviewed twice by the State Department's independent Accountability Review Board that was created to investigate the Benghazi attacks. Hicks' testimony further contradicted Toensing's April 29 claim to Special Report that careers were being threatened when he explained that "the overriding factor" in his determination to not return to his post in Libya was to remain with his family in the United States.
The right-wing's Benghazi witch hunt is turning its attention to Thomas Pickering, a career diplomat, and retired Adm. Mike Mullen, in a campaign to discredit their non-partisan report on the Benghazi attacks and push for a permanent, partisan investigation -- an investigation Republicans are actively using to raise money and campaign against Democrats.
Pickering and Mullen led the State Department Accountability Review Board, which in December issued its findings as to what went wrong in Benghazi, Libya, surrounding the September 11, 2012, attacks on a diplomatic facility that led to the deaths of four Americans. The Wall Street Journal reported in a May 12 article that Pickering and Mullen would be the next targets of the right-wing campaign to politicize those attacks:
House Republicans on Monday plan to take another step in a widening Benghazi investigation, by asking leaders of an independent review board to agree to be questioned about their investigation of last year's attacks in Libya.
The formal request, to be submitted in letters on Monday, comes as GOP lawmakers move to discredit the investigation by the Accountability Review Board, a panel appointed under federal law last year by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to size up the adequacy of U.S. security measures and preparations at the diplomatic mission that was overrun in the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist assault.
This move to discredit the Accountability Review Board and push for a permanent investigation comes after Victoria Toensing, a Republican lawyer who represented a "whistleblower" who on May 8 testified for the third time about the attacks, penned a Weekly Standard blog post challenging Pickering and Mullen's report:
The White House has touted the Accountability Review Board (ARB) investigation of the Benghazi massacre as a review "led by two men of unimpeachable expertise and credibility that oversaw a process that was rigorous and unsparing." In fact, the report was purposefully incomplete and willfully misleading.
The two men in charge of the ARB, Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Admiral Michael Mullen, a diplomat and military man respectively, have no meaningful investigative experience. Instead of letting the facts lead the direction of the investigation, the report appears designed to protect the interests of Hillary Clinton, the State Department higher ups, and the president.
But Toensing's criticism, the foundation of the attacks on the ARB, itself is incomplete and misleading.
According to Toensing, a fatal flaw in Pickering and Mullen's investigation was their failure to interview then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Pickering addressed that decision during a May 12 appearance on Meet the Press, saying that he did speak with Clinton and that the conversation was "more than sufficient for the preponderance of evidence that we had collected to make our decisions."
Toensing also built her call for further investigation on the discredited claim that the State Department's counterterrorism bureau was cut out of the decision-making process while the attacks were underway:
Mark Thompson, my husband's client, testified that he asked twice to be interviewed by the ARB and was not. Mr. Thompson was the deputy assistant secretary in charge of coordinating the deployment of a multi-agency team for hostage taking and terrorism attacks. Yet, he was excluded from all decisions, communications, and meetings on September 11 and 12, 2012. Why?
But during his May 8 Congressional testimony, Thompson, an assistant secretary of state for counterterrorism, acknowledged that the counterterrorism bureau was involved. That acknowledgement supports an earlier statement from the head of the State Department's Counterterrorism Bureau, who said: "at no time was the Bureau sidelined or otherwise kept from carrying out its tasks."
At this point, the indictment of Pickering and Mullen amounts to little more than criticizing the length of their conversations with Clinton and manufactured outrage over how far down the chain-of-command a meeting invite went.
These and other already answered questions are the basis of the right's continued push for yet another hearing. As the Wall Street Journal reported:
Interest in the Benghazi attacks was rekindled by a hearing last week in which the former No. 2 U.S. diplomat in Tripoli, Libya, testified about his experiences the night of the attacks. The diplomat, Gregory Hicks, testified as a whistleblower, criticizing administration statements in the first days after the attack that it had grown out of a demonstration.
As a result of Mr. Hicks's testimony, Republican lawmakers said Sunday that additional whistleblowers are likely to emerge. They also are pushing for the appointment of a special select committee to probe the attacks, bringing together investigations now under way at five different GOP-controlled panels.
Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) has called the administration's response to Benghazi--including inaccurate "talking points" used as the basis for early public statements--a "coverup" and endorsed the idea of a select committee, as did Sen. James Inhofe (R., Okla.). Mr. Inhofe predicted last week that the Benghazi investigation would lead to an impeachment debate.
A hint as to why the right continues to ask questions that have already been answered came May 10 with the revelation that Republicans were using the endless Benghazi investigations to raise money. Benghazi is more than just a fundraising opportunity for the right. It's also, and perhaps more importantly, an early attack on Hillary Clinton in advance of the 2016 election cycle, a fact driven home by conservative ads pivoting off Benghazi and by Fox News' graphics team:
One of the big bits of news to come out of the May 8 House Oversight Committee hearing was the claim that "whistleblower" Gregory Hicks felt he had been "effectively demoted" within the State Department for speaking out about the September 2012 attacks on the diplomatic facility in Benghazi. Hicks' attorney, Victoria Toensing, is making the right-wing media rounds, telling radio host Steve Malzberg that Hicks was forced out of his post in Libya after the State Department told him he could either take a desk job or lose his job altogether. Toensing's story, however, does not comport with what her client told Congress. Hicks testified that family considerations were the key factor in his decision not to return to Libya.
Here's the relevant portion from Toensing's appearance on Malzberg's May 10 program:
MALZBERG: So he got demoted, correct?
TOENSING: He did get demoted and you know what? That nasty State Department who has no integrity, shame on John Kerry for not taking charge of this, puts out "well he still has the same pay." And they lied this morning in the Washington Post, telling somebody who just prints what they said, that he sought the desk job that he describes as a demotion. No, he did not. Here's what happened. People need to know this. He was offered a choice: no job, or this job that doesn't mean anything. It's a desk job. It's like going from the -- like a co-anchor to the copy desk.
MALZBERG: So he was given two choices, you're saying, either "take a hike, you're fired," or "take this desk job."
TOENSING: I say it's like telling a starving man, "hey , you get this choice: You can either have no food or you get this rotten steak. What would you like? Would you like a rotten piece of beef or no food at all?"
And here's what Hicks said during the House Oversight Committee hearing (emphasis added):
REP. SCOTT DESJARLAIS (R-TN): So when you came back to the United States, were you planning on going back to Libya?
MR. HICKS: I was. I fully intended to do so.
REP. DESJARLAIS: And what do you think happened?
MR. HICKS: Based on the criticism that I received, I felt that if I went back, I would never be comfortable working there. And in addition, my family really didn't want me to go back. We'd endured a year of separation when I was in Afghanistan 2006 and 2007. That was the overriding factor. So I voluntarily curtailed -- I accepted an offer of what's called a no-fault curtailment. That means that there's -- there would be no criticism of my departure of post, no negative repercussions. And in fact Ambassador Pope, when he made the offer to everyone in Tripoli when he arrived -- I mean Charge Pope -- when he arrived, he indicated that people could expect that they would get a good onward assignment out of that. [transcript via Nexis]
As Toensing noted (and disputed), the Washington Post reported on May 8 that the State Department challenged Hicks' version of events. Spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the department successfully worked with Hicks to find a new temporary position, that Hicks has the same rank and salary, and was under consideration for future assignments. As Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson succinctly put it, Hicks "asked to come home, understandably, and the department parked him in a desk job -- with the same pay and rank -- until something more to his liking comes open."
Leading up to yesterday's House Oversight Committee hearing on Benghazi, the conservative media worked diligently to drive home the idea that the "whistleblowers" who testified had been silenced and were unable to make their voices heard to Congress or other investigative authorities. Much of that narrative was driven by Republican attorney Victoria Toensing, who portrayed her own struggles with bureaucratic red tape as evidence of an administration cover-up. Fox News' Special Report cited Toensing on April 29 in reporting on allegations that "the Obama administration is trying to intimidate potential whistleblowers into silence."
But the testimony of Gregory Hicks, one of the three witnesses at yesterday's hearing, put lie to the notion that the administration was suppressing his voice and opinion. Hicks, we learned, had already spoken with Congressional investigators in Libya. And he had been interviewed -- twice -- as part of the State Department's independent internal investigation. That, combined with the fact that other Benghazi survivors and witnesses have spoken to the FBI, the State Department, and Congress, dismantles the idea that the administration worked to keep Hicks or his cohorts from being heard.
Hicks caused a brief stir yesterday when he testified to Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) that he had been told by the State Department "not to allow the [regional security officer], the acting deputy chief of mission, and myself to be personally interviewed" by Rep. Jason Chaffetz when the Utah Republican led a Congressional delegation to Libya to investigate the Benghazi attacks. Some conservatives misinterpreted Hicks' testimony to mean that Hicks had been ordered not to speak to Chaffetz, period. Hicks, however, later clarified his remarks when questioned by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-NY), explaining that he had been told not to speak to Chaffetz without a State Department attorney present.
From the May 2 edition of Courtside Entertainment Group's The Laura Ingraham Show:
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Victoria Toensing and her husband and legal partner Joseph diGenova are pushing claims that anonymous State Department and CIA "whistleblowers" have been blocked and threatened by the Obama administration to prevent their testifying on the September 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya. Toensing and diGenova are longtime Republican activists, and Toensing has a history of pushing dubious claims and falsehoods into the media.
The buzzy new story on Fox News and conservative blogs involves Republican attorney Victoria Toensing and her claim that anonymous State Department and CIA "whistleblowers" have been blocked and even threatened by the Obama administration to prevent their testifying on the September 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya. Fox News' Ed Henry even asked President Obama about the story at today's press conference (the president said he had no idea what Henry was talking about).
It's worth noting that this is not Victoria Toensing's first foray into Benghazi "cover-up" allegations. Back in November 2012, Toensing wrote an op-ed for Fox News (of course) attempting to draw a sinister link between the Benghazi attack and the abrupt resignation of former CIA director David Petraeus. "Something is rotten in Benghazi-Petraeus," wrote Toensing, who laid out an intricate conspiracy tying the two events together which ultimately fell completely apart.
Toensing's argument was -- like most conspiracies -- dense and winding. According to Toensing, the fact that Petraeus supported the White House's initial indications that an anti-Islam video had incited the Benghazi attackers was "strange," given that Petraeus, in her view, must have known otherwise:
Because if an administration pushes a political agenda that applauds the killing of Bin Laden as the ultimate act for eradicating the radical Islamic threat, then that same administration ignores its Ambassador's urgent pleas for more security for fear it will appear Bin Laden's demise was not the answer to that threat. Our country's chief spy is supposed to know which theory is held up by the evidence.
The question, as Toensing saw it, was what motivation Petraeus had for going along with the White House. One explanation she came up with was that Obama was blackmailing his own CIA director with knowledge of the extramarital affair that ultimately led to Petraeus' resignation. And not only was Petraeus being blackmailed, per Toensing, but the administration had likely concealed knowledge of the affair it so it could be used against him at a later date.
Consider: All candidates for CIA employment must take a polygraph. Doesn't the nominee for DCI have to do so also? And that nasty little catch-all embarrassment question is always asked by the polygrapher. Usually, the polygraphee is thinking back to college and confessing to smoking pot. In 2011, it would not take a sterling memory for Petraeus to remember a 2011 affair.
Why is the administration's handling of the affair significant? Because sloppy vetting of the country's top spy and not giving timely notice to the oversight committees was either gross incompetence or a deliberate evasion of law. Or the sticky situation was used to pressure the DCI into backing the White House theory. Or there was a much bigger secret at Benghazi that all involved were (and still are ) trying to cover up.
Fox News is using the claims of discredited Republican lawyers famous for their attacks on Democrats to accuse unnamed Obama administration officials of issuing threats to witnesses to prevent their testimony on the attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.
Former Reagan administration official Victoria Toensing and her husband and legal partner Joseph diGenova have claimed that they represent one of four "whistleblowers" to the Benghazi attack, and that those witnesses have been threatened by administration officials to prevent their testimony. Fox is portraying these allegations as part of a federal "cover-up," a claim that belies the fact that witnesses to the Benghazi attack have spoken to the FBI and an independent State Department investigation, and that some senators received their testimony. The State Department has said it is not aware of any employees claiming to be whistleblowers or attorneys attempting to gain security clearance to represent them.
On the April 30 edition of Fox & Friends, co-host Steve Doocy cited allegations from the Republican lawyers to claim that unnamed Benghazi witnesses have been "threatened" by the Obama administration and are scared of speaking out. An on-screen graphic from Fox implied the State Department is preventing witnesses from giving testimony about the attacks:
But Toensing and diGenova are not merely unbiased advocates for whistleblowers, but rather GOP partisans who have been discredited from their unprofessional conduct and lies in earlier investigations.
A 1998 Washington Post profile of the couple reported, "Name a high-profile investigation in this city and chances are the prosecutorial pair is involved," pointing out their roles defending Republicans and investigating Democrats. Their actions came under fire with Democratic Congressman Bill Clay criticizing Toensing and diGenova for "relinquish[ing] the air of impartiality, non-partisanship, and professionalism" required when they were working as congressional investigators for a House Education and Workforce subcommittee, due to their constant media appearances attacking President Clinton. The pair were also accused of having a conflict of interest for serving representing a Republican committee chairman under Justice Department investigation at the same time they were serving as special counsel to the committee in a separate investigation.
More recently, Toensing pushed the falsehood that covert CIA agent Valerie Plame, who was outed to the media in 2003, did not have covert status. She has continued to make media appearances pushing false attacks on the Obama administration and has written columns for FoxNews.com attacking their response to Benghazi and calling for a special counsel to investigate other matters.
The claims by Fox and others that these witnesses are being prevented from testifying about the attacks as part of a government "cover-up" is undermined by the fact that witnesses have been interviewed by the FBI for its on-going criminal investigation into the attack and spoken to investigators from the State Department's independent review of the event. The Senate Intelligence committee reportedly received redacted transcripts from the FBI interviews of the survivors and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has said he's spoken with some of the survivors.
Furthermore, Fox's own guests have explained that government employees engaged in intelligence and other clandestine work, or witnesses in an on-going criminal investigation, simply wouldn't be able to talk about their experiences in public.
On Wednesday's edition of The O'Reilly Factor, Bill O'Reilly hosted Rachel Alexander to discuss a "threatened lawsuit" by federal officials against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio regarding his treatment of undocumented immigrants. Alexander denounced the federal investigation into Arpaio as politically motivated because "the Obama administration is liberal, and ... has a contrary opinion to the citizens of Arizona when it comes to arresting illegal immigrants."
O'Reilly identified Alexander only as a former deputy attorney in Maricopa County. In fact, she's a lot more than that: She's a longtime apologist for Arpaio who's currently under investigation by the Arizona bar.
As the Arizona Republic reported, Alexander, her former boss, former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, and another staffer are being investigated by the bar after a judge ruled that Thomas acted unethically in the prosecution of a Maricopa County supervisor. Earlier this month, the Arizona Supreme Court refused to stop the investigation.
When Alexander joined the Maricopa County Attorney's office in 2005, the Phoenix New Times called it a "clear signal" that the office "will no longer do battle with" Arpaio (Thomas had recently replaced a county attorney had a more combative relationship with Arpaio). After all, back in 2002, Alexander co-wrote an article purporting to explain "What's Really Happening in Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Jail," which concluded that "Accusations that Arpaio is a publicity hound are misplaced" and that "Arpaio generates publicity because he implements innovative programs that save taxpayers money and deter criminal behavior. If he was a passive sheriff who simply coddled inmates and gave them their cable television and pornography, so there weren't any complaints, he wouldn't make news."
Media conservatives have relied on discredited sources to push the false allegation that the White House broke the law and "bribed" Rep. Joe Sestak with an administration job in exchange for staying out of the Senate race. These sources have a history of promoting falsehoods and have significant ties to the GOP -- which include supporting Sestak's opponent in the Senate race.
Wolf Blitzer brought on attorney Victoria Toensing to discuss the conviction of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, but Blitzer did not disclose that Toensing co-wrote a legal brief during the related CIA leak investigation on behalf of CNN and media outlets arguing against forcing them to testify, nor did Blitzer mention that she was a member of the Reagan administration.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Republican attorney and former Reagan Justice Department official Victoria Toensing offered a variety of falsehoods in defending the Bush administration's warrantless domestic surveillance program.