Was Elizabeth Birnbaum Fired? Don't Ask Obama

http://www.mms.gov

When President Obama's Interior Secretary Ken Salazar promised to root out the "bad apples" yesterday at a House hearing, the head of Minerals Management Service was at the same hearing -- about to be plucked from the tree.

Elizabeth Birnbaum's departure was first reported as a "firing." Later, a "resignation." When asked for clarity, President Obama told the press corps today he had no idea.

"Did she resign," asked CBS White House Correspondent Chip Reid. "Was she fired? Was she forced out? And if so, why?"

"I found out about her resignation today," the president answered, "so I don't know the circumstances in which this occurred."

An incredulous press corps followed up.

"How is it that you didn't know about Ms. Birnbaum's resignation/firing before?" asked another reporter.

Mr. Obama: "Well, you're assuming it was a firing. If it was a resignation, then she would have submitted a letter to Mr. Salazar this morning at a time when I had a whole bunch of other stuff going on... Come on, I don't know. I'm telling you I found out about it this morning. So I don't yet know the circumstances, and Ken Salazar has been in testimony on the Hill."

The testimony today on the Hill from Interior Secretary Salazar only seemed to add to the mixed message. He called Birnbaum a "strong leader" and added "we have done tremendous work."

In light of her resignation, Birnbaum understandably didn't join Salazar as once expected. In prepared testimony, she planned to tell the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment: "The Secretary has expressed his appreciation and full support of the Inspector General's strong work to root out the bad apples in MMS and we will follow through on her recommendations, including taking any and all appropriate personnel actions including termination, discipline, and referrals of any wrongdoing for criminal prosecution."

Birnbaum resigned before she could deliver her prepared remarks. She hadn't even been at MMS for a full year. But today she nonetheless became the highest-level casualty of MMS's lax oversight and cozy ties to oil.

  • Sharyl Attkisson On Twitter»

    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.

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