Adviser on White House scandals: "Partisan fishing expeditions" won't distract Obama

(CBS News) "Partisan fishing expeditions" - like the amplifying clamor around news that the Internal Revenue Service targeted for excessive review conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status - White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said Sunday on "Face the Nation," won't "distract" President Obama from doing his job. Pfieffer did admit, however, that the IRS' conduct was wrong and should be fixed.

"It's inexcusable conduct that needs to be fixed," Pfeiffer said. "It was an incredible breach of the public's trust, and we have to repair that breach; no question about that."

But "this is a Republican playbook," Pfeiffer continued. "When they don't have a positive agenda, try to drag Washington into a swamp of partisan fishing expeditions, trumped up hearings and false allegations. We're not gonna let that distract us and the president."

A timeline released in a Treasury inspector general's report last week revealed that the IRS in the spring of 2010 began singling out groups with keywords like "Tea Party," "Patriot" and "9/12 Project" in their names to flag for heightened, often burdensome, scrutiny. The agency insisted last week that no high-level employees were aware of the practice, but the IG report alleges that Lois Lerner - an IRS official in charge of oversight of tax-exempt groups - knew about it as early as June 2011.

Full coverage of the IRS targeting controversy

Pfeiffer said the White House had no knowledge of the practice.

"The first that the White House was made aware of it was from the Treasury Department a few weeks ago," he said. "And not the details of what happened, not the results of the investigation, but that an independent investigation was about to conclude.

"And here's how we handle this - and this is how I think every administration tries to handle this," he continued. "You have a cardinal rule, which is you do nothing to interfere with an independent investigation and you do nothing to offer the appearance of interfering in an investigation. So we, I feel like we handled this the appropriate way."

The real scandal, Pfeiffer argued, would have been "if the president had been involved or interfered in an IRS investigation or what's happening at the Department of Justice."

In the past week President Obama has been dogged by questions about not only the IRS controversy, but ongoing disputes about how the administration handled a Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya, as well as news that the Justice Department seized two months of phone records from the Associated Press.

Pfeiffer tried to dispel any notion of "cover-up" in Benghazi. When U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice appeared on "Face the Nation" on Sept. 16 - five days after the attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya - echoing the theory that the strike began "spontaneously" like the protests in Egypt over an anti-Muslim film and was not a premeditated terrorist act, Pfeiffer said, she was merely relaying "what the CIA believed at the time."

Benghazi timeline: How the probe unfolded
Benghazi timeline: How the attack unfolded
Full coverage of the U.S. Consulate attack in Benghazi

"We tried to get it as right as we could, and as we got new information we shared it with the American people," he continued.

White House chief of staff Denis R. McDonough has recommended his staff members not spend more than 10 percent of their time dealing with the scandals.

"What's important here is that as problems happen, the president takes responsibility for them, and tries to fix them," Pfeiffer said.

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    Lindsey Boerma is senior video producer for CBSNews.com.

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