Right-wing media are claiming that former CBS investigative reporter Sharyl Attikisson was “targeted” by the Obama administration because a Department of Justice press aide complained to CBS about an article Attkisson wrote about Operation Fast and Furious. In fact, the story DOJ was criticizing inaccurately accused Attorney General Eric Holder of lying to Congress.
On November 20, conservative website PJ Media first reported on October 2011 emails obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request by conservative group Judicial Watch. The emails contain a conversation between then-DOJ office of public affairs director Tracy Schmaler and White House communications aide Eric Schultz criticizing a CBSNews.com piece written by Attkisson.
Schmaler wrote that she was going to contact Attkisson's editor and CBS's Bob Schieffer and called Attkisson “out of control.” In a later email, Schmaler wrote that the contention of Attkisson's article was “bullshit.”
PJ Media characterized the exchange as a “bombshell” that “provides smoking gun proof that the Obama White House and the Eric Holder Justice Department colluded to get CBS News to block reporter Sharyl Attkisson.”
Conservative blogs ran with PJ Media's article, which was eventually picked up by the Drudge Report. Attkisson reacted to PJ Media's article on Glenn Beck's radio show, saying, “If you dare to go after them, they will target you, try to assassinate your character, they'll call your bosses, they'll email. We know all of this is going on, but we now have emails that they've been withholding under executive privilege that refer to this.”
The story also quickly made its way to Fox News, where America's Newsroom co-host Bill Hemmer reported the development as “more bombshell emails revealing how the White House targeted former CBS investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson.”
That the Obama administration would complain about Attkisson's reporting is unremarkable -- the central contention of the article they were complaining about was in fact inaccurate, as later confirmed by a 2012 independent investigation into Operation Fast and Furious.
While at CBS, Attkisson was one of the first reporters to cover the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosive's (ATF) botched gun trafficking sting Operation Fast and Furious. Agents in Phoenix's ATF office allowed guns to cross the U.S/Mexico border in hopes of building a case against high level cartel figures, but subsequently lost track of the guns.
On October 3, 2011, Attkisson published an article at CBSNews.com that leveled the serious allegation that Attorney General Eric Holder had lied to Congress about his knowledge of Operation Fast and Furious. In May 2011, Holder testified that he had become aware of Fast and Furious within “the last few weeks.” Attkisson wrote, “New documents obtained by CBS News show Attorney General Eric Holder was sent briefings on the controversial Fast and Furious operation as far back as July 2010. That directly contradicts his statement to Congress. ... [I]nternal Justice Department documents show that at least ten months before that hearing, Holder began receiving frequent memos discussing Fast and Furious.”
Schmaler's emails objecting to the story were sent the next day. In one email, Schultz wrote to Schmaler, “Why do you think nobody else wrote? Were they not fed the docs?” Schmaler replied that she had “spent much of last night explaining to everyone it's a bullshit accusation.” This suggests that other reporters received the same documents as Attkisson but decided not to report on them after receiving information from DOJ explaining that the existence of the briefings did not contradict Holder's testimony.
Attkisson's report was seized on by conservative media and the allegation that Holder lied about when he became aware of the botched gun trafficking sting was also made by a House Oversight Committee investigation into Operation Fast and Furious headed by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA). Holder responded to the allegation in an October 7, 2011, letter to Issa and other members of Congress. He wrote that his “testimony was truthful and accurate” and explained that the documents in question were parts of extensive memos that are addressed to him but not intended for his review:
In the past few days, some have pointed to documents that we provided to Congress as evidence that I was familiar with Fast and Furious earlier than I have testified. That simply is not the case and those suggestions mischaracterize the process by which I receive information concerning the activities of the Department's many components. On a weekly basis, my office typically receives over a hundred pages of so-called “weekly reports” that, while addressed to me, actually are provided to and reviewed by members of my staff and the staff of the Office of the Deputy Attorney General.
An independent investigation into Operation Fast and Furious conducted by the DOJ's Office of the Inspector General (IG) explored and rejected the allegation that Holder was briefed on Fast and Furious in 2010, confirming Holder's account of events.
According to the investigation's 2012 report, Holder “did not personally review these reports” nor did his staff “highlight them for his review”:
Although the Office of the Attorney General received various weekly reports from components in the Department that mentioned Operation Fast and Furious, we found that Attorney General Holder did not personally review these reports at the time that his office received them and that his staff did not highlight them for his review. Moreover, we determined that these reports did not refer to agents' failure to interdict firearms or include information that otherwise provided notice of the improper strategy and tactics that ATF agents were using in the investigation."
Even chief Operation Fast and Furious investigator Issa would eventually say that it was an “important point” to acknowledge that the IG investigation determined that Holder had not been aware of the details of the operation.
Despite evidence to the contrary, Attkisson included the same claims about Holder being briefed on Operation Fast and Furious at an earlier date than he said he had before Congress in her recently released book Stonewalled: My Fight for Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation, and Harassment in Obama's Washington.
Although Attkisson has promoted herself as a non-partisan reporter attempting to speak truth to power, the book contained right-wing falsehoods about Operation Fast and Furious, the Department of Energy's clean energy loan program, the 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, and the launch of Healthcare.gov.