Obama discusses IRS scandal, Syria and Benghazi

11:57 AM, May 13, 2013   |    comments
President Obama (Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP)
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WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) -- Facing a wall of outrage from GOP lawmakers over revelations that the Internal Revenue Service targeted "tea party" groups and non-profit organizations that criticized the government. President Obama on Monday called the actions by agency personnel "outrageous" and said "there is no place for it."

The president, who appeared alongside British Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday, weighed in on the IRS controversy for the first time and attempted to head off snowballing criticism from Republican lawmakers that the president hadn't personally condemned the agency targeting conservative political groups for extra scrutiny.

Obama said he first learned about the IRS targeting of conservative groups from news reports on Friday. He said those responsible for the practice should be held "fully accountable."

Lois Lerner, the IRS director of exempt organization, on Friday admitted the agency made "mistakes" in the last few years and that employees in the agency's Cincinnati office routinely required conservative organizations seeking non-profit status to undergo more scrutiny.

Multiple conservative groups have said their applications were delayed and returned with lengthy requests for supporting materials, sometimes including website printouts and lists of guest speakers.

"You don't want the IRS ever being perceived to be biased," Obama said.

Obama added that neither party wants the IRS to be perceived as "anything less than neutral in terms of how they operate." He added: "This is something that I think people are properly concerned about."

Still, the president pointed to the inspector general's ongoing investigation , Obama said he would not comment prematurely on specific findings.

The president added that his administration will get to the bottom of what happened at the IRS. "I have no patience for it. I will not tolerate it. "

Obama also faced a difficult question about the administration's response to last year's terror attack on a U.S. facility in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, dead.

E-mails unveiled last week show the State Department and other senior administration officials asking that references to terror groups and prior warnings be deleted from a unclassified memo on talking points about the incident shortly after the attack

GOP lawmakers have also criticized that the State Department board that reviewed the incident didn't interview Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. As the president held his press conference, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa announced that he had sent letters to Benghazi Accountability Review Board (ARB) co-chairs former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and former Admiral Mike Mullen requesting that they submit to transcribed interviews in anticipation of a public hearing on the board's investigation.

"Three senior State Department officials who testified at the hearing criticized the ARB's work as 'incomplete' and flawed because the ARB did not interview key witnesses and failed to hold senior officials accountable," wrote Issa in the ltetter to Pickering. "On May 12, 2013, you defended the ARB's work on 'Face the Nation.' You stated that those criticisms are 'unfair' ... The White House and the State Department have touted the ARB's report as the definitive account of how and why the Benghazi attacks occurred. It is necessary for the Committee to understand whether the criticisms of the ARB's work that we heard from witnesses on May 8, 2013 are valid."

But the president pushed back that his administration officials have been forthcoming about Benghazi and suggested that Republicans are more interested in scoring political points than figuring out how to prevent such incidents from happening again in hotspots where U.S. diplomats and other personnel are deployed.

"There is no there, there," Obama said.

Obama and Cameron met for about hour at the White House before the new conference. Cameron said their talks centered on the economy, the ongoing civil war in Syria and next month's G-8 summit that Cameron will host in Northern Ireland.

Both Cameron and Obama acknowledged they have a difficult task in persuading Russia to abandon Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.

Obama noted that there are long-term "suspicions" by Russia toward the G-8 alliance–which includes the USA, Britain and Russia-- but both he and Cameron were trying to "break down" some of those suspicions

"As a leader on the world stage, Russia has an interest and obligation to resolve this issue that can lead to outcome we all want to see in the long-term," Obama said.

"Syria's history is being written in the blood of her people," Cameron said. He added "and it is happening under our watch."

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