WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama tried to defuse a trio of controversies Thursday, pledging to work with Congress to ensure the IRS doesn’t abuse its power, urging legislators to provide more money to strengthen security at U.S. diplomatic outposts and promising to seek “a balance” between national security and a need to protect freedom of the press.
“I think we’re going to be able to fix it,” Obama said, speaking in particular of the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups for special scrutiny. He vowed to make sure the agency is “doing its job scrupulously and without even a hint of bias.”
Trying to steer clear of Republican criticism of the administration’s response to the terror attacks that killed four Americans last year in Benghazi, Libya, the president called on Congress to work with the White House to provide more money to strengthen U.S. diplomatic missions’ security.
“We need to come together and truly honor the sacrifice of those four courageous Americans and better secure our diplomatic posts around the world,” Obama said. “That’s how we learn the lessons of Benghazi. That’s how we keep faith with the men and women who we send overseas to represent America.”
Obama also was asked about the government’s seizure of telephone records of reporters and editors of The Associated Press in an investigation of news leaks. The president said he would not comment on that specific case but said that “leaks related to national security can put people at risk.” At the same time, he said, the government has an obligation to be open. He said the challenge was to find an appropriate balance between secrecy and the right to know.
Obama said he makes no apologies for trying to protect classified information, but he also said the AP case shows the importance of striking a proper balance between safeguarding classified information and ensuring freedom of the press.
“That’s a worthy conversation to have,” Obama said in his first public comments on the AP matter.
Obama said it was a good time to take another look at proposed legislation to protect journalists from having to reveal information, including the identity of sources who have been promised confidentiality. The bill contains exceptions in instances of national security.
Noting the presence of U.S. troops and intelligence officers in risky situations around the world, Obama said, “Part of my job is to make sure that we’re protecting what they do while still accommodating for the need for the public to be informed and to be able to hold my office accountable.”
The president is trying to shake off a growing perception that he has been passive in responding to a series of developments that threaten to derail his second-term agenda and ensnarl his White House in GOP-led congressional investigations.
Hoping to regain momentum, already this week Obama has released a trove of documents related to the Benghazi terror attacks amid pressure from Republicans, asked Congress to revive action on the shield law, and forced the resignation of the top IRS official. The president is expected to nominate a new acting IRS commissioner this week to replace Steven Miller, who resigned Wednesday.
The president spoke at a rainy Rose Garden news conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As drizzles gave way to a steady rain, Obama summoned Marine guards to provide umbrellas for Erdogan and himself, joking, “I’ve got a change of suits but I don’t know about our prime minister.”
Obama’s initial response to the three controversies was cautious. That, combined with his earlier lack of awareness about controversies brewing within his administration, opened him to criticism from his Republican foes.
“If Obama really learned about the latest IRS and AP secret subpoena scandals in the news, who exactly is running the ship at the White House?” Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said.
And, in a worrisome sign for the White House, some Democrats also criticized the president for not being more aggressive in responding to trouble within the government.
Robert Gibbs, Obama’s former White House press secretary, said the president should have appointed a bipartisan commission of former IRS officials to look into the issue of targeting political organizations. And Gibbs gently chided his former boss for using passive language when he first addressed the political targeting during a White House news conference Monday.
“I think they would have a much better way of talking about this story rather than simply kind of landing on the, ‘Well, if this happened, then we’ll look at it’,” Gibbs said on MSNBC.
The fresh pair of controversies coincided with a resurgence in the GOP-led investigation into the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on a U.S. compound in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
Congressional Republicans launched another round of hearings on the attacks last week. And on Friday, a congressional official disclosed details of emails among administration officials that resulted in talking points, used to publicly discuss the deadly incident, being revised to downplay the prospect that the attacks were an act of terror.
Obama aides insisted the emails were either taken out of context or provided no new information, but they resisted pressure to make the emails public for five days before finally disclosing them to reporters Wednesday. The emails revealed that then-CIA Director David Petraeus disagreed with the final talking points, despite the White House’s insistence that the intelligence agency had final say over the statements.
The White House has publicly defended its handling of the controversies. Obama spokesman Jay Carney has insisted it would be “wholly inappropriate” for the president, in the case of the Justice Department matter, to weigh in on an active investigation, and in the case of the IRS controversy, to insert himself in the actions of an independent agency.
However, legal scholar Jonathan Turley disputed those assertions, saying there is no legal reason a president would be precluded from learning about the investigations before the public did or from commenting on them, at least broadly.
“These comments treat the president like he’s the bubble boy,” said Turley, a law professor at George Washington University.