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White House Addresses Benghazi Emails, IRS Audits


AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: And I'm Audie Cornish.

The Obama administration is doing some intensive damage control this evening. Tonight, the president announced that the acting commissioner of the IRS, Steven Miller, is being pushed out over heightened scrutiny given to Tea Party groups and other conservative organizations.

Earlier today, the White House also released 100 pages of emails in hopes of quieting a lingering controversy over last year's deadly attack at the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now.

And, Scott, let's start with the IRS. Yesterday, an inspector general report blamed ineffective management at the agency for allowing inappropriate treatment of Tea Party-style groups to continue for more than a year and a half. But it sounds like this accountability goes right to the top.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Well, that's right. The president, through his Treasury secretary, Jack Lew, requested the resignation of the acting IRS commissioner. Obama said by targeting Tea Party groups for special scrutiny, the IRS had done wrong. The agency has to operate with the absolute integrity, he says. And that didn't happen in this case.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It's inexcusable and Americans are right to be angry about it, and I am angry about it. I will not tolerate this kind of behavior in any agency, but especially in the IRS.

HORSLEY: And the president promised full cooperation with Congress, as its various committees continue to investigate this matter.

CORNISH: Now, President Obama also promised to take steps to prevent anything like this from happening again. But what did he say he'll actually do?

HORSLEY: Well, the Treasury Department's watchdog that looked into this made a lot of recommendations about how to do a better job of being more consistent and more impartial in assessing groups of all political stripes when they apply for tax-exempt status. The president promised to work quickly to implement those recommendations, but he also said it's important for Congress to look at the laws governing tax-exempt status.

There have been suggestions that those laws are ambiguous, and that that put the IRS in a difficult spot. So one step might be to make sure that the law and what's being looked for is more clear for the low-level workers doing the assessments.

CORNISH: Now, the other controversy that's been dogging the president concerns Benghazi. Now, the president, of course, has described this as a political sideshow. But how is the administration trying to put it behind them?

HORSLEY: Yeah. It's a sideshow that, unfortunately for the White House, continues to move front and center. Much of the controversy is not about the attack itself in which U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed, but rather about the talking points that administration officials used to describe the attack. Now, we now know some of those talking points proved to be wrong. For example, the attack did not grow out of a spontaneous demonstration, as the administration initially said.

Today, the White House released 100 pages of emails showing the evolution of those talking points. What they're trying to show is that even though the White House and the State Department played a larger role in crafting the talking points than initially revealed, most of the material was really the product of intelligence experts at the CIA. And so the White House is arguing whatever errors were in the talking points were the result of incomplete information, not politically motivated editing by the White House.

CORNISH: And we've been given a sense that there's a good deal of confusion at that time.

HORSLEY: Well, that's right. White House officials point out that even though it turns out there was no spontaneous demonstration in Benghazi, it wasn't an altogether ridiculous assumption. They point out that on the Friday afternoon when those talking points were being crafted, there were violent demonstrations going on throughout the Muslim world at U.S. embassies, and all that in reaction to an anti-Muslim video produced here in the States.

CORNISH: Just a short time left, Scott. Is this email trail likely to quiet the criticism?

HORSLEY: Probably not. You know, the White House really didn't want to release these emails. They say it chills the back and forth among the various agencies. But they took this step because they're obviously feeling defensive. And even though they're trying to put the matter to rest, it's doubtful Republicans are going to let this go.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Scott Horsley at the White House. Scott, thank you.

HORSLEY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.