The bruised and battered Democrats may have lost the Senate, but they haven’t lost their zest for battle—nor, for that matter, their wily powers of political tradecraft.
The case of former CBS News investigative correspondent Sharyl Attkisson offers the latest evidence that the Senate’s freshly demoted minority party still has some mad skills in the spinning hardball department.
Attkisson—whose hard-edged reports on Obama administration missteps deeply angered officials and elected Democrats loyal to the president—got a taste of payback last week when she appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Shortly after she finished her time at the microphone Jan. 29, Attkisson found herself the subject of proliferating online media stories—possibly aided and abetted by Senate Democratic staffers—that raised doubts about her credibility and made her look slightly foolish, while providing a textbook example of inside-the-Beltway legerdemain.
Attkisson, who as a veteran Washington journalist has often been the beneficiary of such media-savvy practices, said in an email to The Daily Beast: “Experience teaches us to be cautious of the motives of people who expend so much effort trying to disparage and controversialize those exposing and alleging wrongdoing— while they unskeptically swallow anything spoon-fed to them by powers-that-be, no matter how factually ridiculous.”
The 54-year-old reporter—who quit CBS in March after a 20-year career in the Washington bureau, and these days contributes stories to The Daily Signal, a news site backed by the right-wing Heritage Foundation—is suing the U.S. Department of Justice and the Postal Service, as well as outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder and former Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe, for their alleged involvement in apparent cyber-attacks on her CBS News computer.
CBS News confirmed in June 2013 that a cybersecurity firm, hired by the network to conduct a forensic analysis of Attkisson’s company-issued laptop, determined that it had been hacked by “an unauthorized, external, unknown party on multiple occasions in late 2012.”
So Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley’s staff—while recruiting witness panels for the confirmation hearing of Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch, the woman chosen to replace Holder as attorney general—invited Attkisson to testify about the alleged hacking, which she says her own privately-hired experts traced to an I.P. address at the Postal Service.
She also discussed the Obama Justice Department’s multiple national security prosecutions arising from classified revelations by news outlets, and its allegedly draconian restrictions on freedom of the press. (Attkisson is hardly an outlier in suggesting that President Obama and his attorney general are threats to the First Amendment; it is a widely held view in the journalism business.)
Enter Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, the No. 5 Democrat on Judiciary. Sitting at the nearly-empty dais during a lull in the proceedings, Whitehouse placed in the hearing record a redacted summary of a just-completed Justice Department Inspector General’s report concluding that a forensic examination of Attkisson’s personal computer—not her CBS-issued laptop—was unable to find “evidence of remote or unauthorized access.”
Attkisson, who’d lent her MacBook Air to the government investigators who initially told her that they believed something fishy was going on, had been unable to obtain either the redacted summary or their full report despite months of trying, including filing a Freedom of Information Act request, until the evening before her testimony.
Ironically, even the Judiciary Committee’s majority staff—which is enjoying a moment of maximum leverage and impact at the Justice Department, given that they’re presiding over the fate of a vitally important Obama administration nominee—had to ask repeatedly and vociferously for the report before finally obtaining it on Jan. 23.
Indeed, it’s possible that the investigation, long inactive and on the shelf, was rushed to completion right before the Lynch hearing as a result of Judiciary Committee prodding.
A Republican committee aide said Grassley’s staff will be briefed this week by the Inspector General’s Office on the Attkisson investigation and its conclusions.
Aside from throwing cold water on Attkisson’s hacking worries, the summary also dismissed or cast doubt on a number of her other claims, notably that an unauthorized cyber-intruder, possibly working for the Feds, had remotely deleted text from one of her laptop files—no, said the summary, it was a “stuck backspace key”—a problem that Attkisson said she’s never encountered before or since.
The summary also asserted that a “suspicious” length of cable left at her Virginia home (possibly for surveillance, she said) was simply a “common” cable of no particular significance.
With the Inspector General’s summary officially in the record thanks to Sen. Whitehouse, it was suddenly a public document available to Washington reporters, who promptly proceeded to file stories unfavorable to Attkisson’s claims. “Watchdog: Attkisson wasn’t hacked, had ‘delete’ key stuck,” was a typical headline in The Hill, a newspaper that covers Congress.
It’s difficult to know for certain how various members of the Beltway’s media-political complex found out about the Inspector General’s conclusions within minutes of Whitehouse’s action.
Perhaps they are just fabulously alert and primed to pounce on every nugget, no matter how small.
Or—here’s an alternative explanation—maybe a few enterprising staffers of the committee’s minority Democratic members reached out to select journalists and provided copies of the redacted summary along with some helpful framing, otherwise known as “spin.”
Republican Grassley’s aides, according to committee sources, did not release the summary.
“I think I sent it to one or two reporters who asked for it after the hearings,” said Whitehouse’s press secretary, in an email to The Daily Beast. “But I didn’t distribute it widely. In any event, once it’s entered into the record of the hearing it becomes a matter of public record.”
Whitehouse’s press secretary added: “Since Ms. Attkisson’s testimony was based in large part on accusations of DOJ wrongdoing, Senator Whitehouse and others felt it was important for the record of the hearing to include the IG’s final report on said accusations. Ranking Member [Patrick] Leahy [Democrat of Vermont] asked him to enter it into the record and he was happy to do so.” (Yet even the Inspector General’s summary noted that the report isn’t “final” and can be reopened if further evidence arises; nor does it cover all the “said accusations,” since Attkisson’s CBS News laptop was not part of the examination.)
A few days after the initial media flurry, a piece on Monday in the left-leaning webzine Salon, written by a former staffer of the liberal press watchdog group Media Matters, carried the provocative title: “A right-wing hack undone: Sharyl Attkisson’s White House ‘hacking’ allegation takes a hit.”
Those pieces, and several others, gave short shrift to the Inspector General Office’s acknowledgement that CBS News refused to give government investigators any access to Attkisson’s workplace computer—the one CBS’s experts say was definitely hacked—or the related forensic reports.
A spokesperson for CBS News declined to comment on why the company refused to cooperate with the Justice Department’s investigators.
But Attkisson’s Little Rock-based lawyer, Tab Turner, who is handling her lawsuits against the Feds, said the answer is obvious.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that you don’t hand over your computer to the very people that you’re contending infected it to begin with,” Turner told The Daily Beast. He added, on the other hand, that his client will have access to both her erstwhile work computer and CBS’s forensic report.
Turner said that as part of Attkisson’s separation agreement from CBS News, the company promised to maintain her former Toshiba laptop in safekeeping as evidence for a prospective legal proceeding, and CBS said it would not resist a routine subpoena for both the computer and the forensic report.
Concerning the Inspector General’s report, Turner characterized it as “irrelevant,” claiming that Attkisson’s “work computer” is “the sole focus” of her legal complaints.
As for why the Feds reached their decidedly unhelpful conclusions, Turner said: “It’s pretty simple. They didn’t look at the computer.”