Vendetta: How the Obama Administration Harassed Sharyl Attkisson for Her Reporting on Operation Fast and Furious

U.S. presidents never have been fond of journalists who criticize their policies – especially if that negative coverage exposes blunders or criminal conduct. White House occupants devote considerable effort to uncovering the identity of sources leaking such information to enterprising reporters. The obsessive campaigns that the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations have waged to demonize, prosecute and destroy WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange provide the latest evidence of the intense desire for vengeance. But there is a lesser-known episode that also underscores that tendency and confirms that Hell hath no fury like an administration whose malfeasance or incompetence has seen the light of day because of a journalist’s investigative work.

In her book, Stonewalled: My Fight for Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation, and Harassment in Obama’s Washington, former CBS television reporter Sharyl Attkisson describes how she ran afoul of the White House because of her work on the "Fast and Furious" gun-running scandal and her subsequent inquiries into the September 11, 2012, terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that took the lives of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

Fast and Furious involved a sting operation that the Justice Department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives concocted to infiltrate and weaken Mexican drug cartels. The scheme entailed shipping traceable guns to the drug trafficking gangs and then following the trail to identify and neutralize those organizations and the kingpins who ran them. But Operation Fast and Furious backfired badly. Law enforcement personnel assigned to maintain the traces lost track of where the weapons ultimately ended up. The cartels received more than 1,700 additional weapons at the expense of US taxpayers. Not surprisingly, the Obama administration sought to conceal the nature and extent of the fiasco. Invoking "executive privilege," Attorney General Eric Holder even defied a congressional subpoena and refused to testify before a House committee investigating the Fast and Furious scheme.

Attkisson was the reporter who apparently attracted the administration’s greatest displeasure for stories she aired that exposed how the sting went so badly wrong. That animosity grew when her investigative articles on Benghazi became more numerous and prominent. "My Fast and Furious coverage," Attkisson recalled in her memoir, "bled over into the Benghazi period. The Obama administration was just as frantic over my reporting on that topic. Just as desperate to learn who was talking to me and what I was learning from them."

Soon she discovered unmistakable signs that her phones had been tapped and her computers compromised, developments that technical experts she called in for assistance confirmed. Apparently, the operatives who planted the bugs and conducted the computer intrusions concluded that she was using classified information from sources inside the government. The administration’s hostility and paranoia already was evident because of her coverage of Fast and Furious, but her news segments on the Benghazi fiasco apparently reinforced the administration’s negative attitude and triggered a more concerted campaign of harassment.

As internal government e-mails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by Judicial Watch subsequently confirmed, Attkisson’s worries that she had been targeted for surveillance and a White House campaign to stifle her reporting were warranted. In one email exchange on October 4, 2011, a press aide to Holder tells a spokesman for President Obama that Attkisson is "out of control" with her work on Fast and Furious. The aide says further that she plans to complain both to Attkisson’s editor and to Bob Schieffer, a CBS veteran of four decades and the network’s chief Washington correspondent – someone who had more than a little influence with the network’s corporate leaders. There were indications that the administration’s animosity toward Attkisson had an impact on her status at CBS. It was at least an unsettling coincidence that although Attkisson had consistently been among the top 20 reporters whose work was featured most frequently on the major network nightly news programs from 2007 to 2010, her ranking then began to decline, ultimately plunging to 78th by 2013. She left CBS the following spring.

Attkisson concluded that she was not the only target of the White House’s wrath. Instead, she believed that the administration was "going after" other journalists and sources that it viewed as "harmful to its own self-interests." There was ample evidence to support her conclusion on that point as well. As I noted in a previous article, Obama and his aides stepped up efforts to prosecute sources who engaged in unauthorized leaks and ordered the FBI to monitor reporters they believed were guilty of publishing articles based on leaked documents. The Justice Department even considered prosecuting those journalists for espionage. Targets included New York Times reporter James Risen and Fox News reporter James Rosen. Attkisson had reason to worry about continuing electronic surveillance or worse.

It was hardly the first time that an administration facing exposure misused national security justifications to conceal more mundane and questionable motives, and it would not be the last. Attkisson noted that "There are thousands of examples over the decades, but one need look no further than Fast and Furious to find government misconduct, bad actors, and false information all wrapped up in one." As she also discovered, reporters who do dare investigate such behavior incur worrisome risks in doing so. Increasingly, occupants of the White House do not consider themselves to be temporary stewards of executive power, but emperors who should be beyond criticism, embarrassment, or even scrutiny. It is a menacing mentality that poses a serious threat to an independent press.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books and more than 900 articles on international affairs, press freedoms, and civil liberties.

Author: Ted Galen Carpenter

Ted Galen Carpenter, Senior Fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, is the author of 13 books and more than 1,100 articles on international affairs. Dr. Carpenter held various senior policy positions during a 37-year career at the Cato institute. His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022).