Barack Obama must feel a little like the Wicked Witch in “The Wizard of Oz,” who, after Dorothy threw water on her, said, “I’m melting! Melting!” Fox News, its conservative followers and Republicans in Congress have been throwing more than water at the president these last years, not always for good reasons. But this time there have been some real transgressions, if not by Obama himself then by his administration, which he is ultimately responsible for.
We’re not referring to the terrorist attack on the embassy in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, last September. There were some misjudgments and misstatements made by Obama and State Department officials, but the evidence so far (including 100 pages of emails released by the White House Wednesday) suggests it was more a result of confusion, poor communication, poor information from the CIA, and the State Department's desire for bureaucratic self-protection than anything else. The conservatives have tried hard to paint Benghazi as a major scandal involving lies and coverups, but there just isn’t enough there.
That isn’t the case with two other issues involving the administration that have just come to light: the IRS’ targeting of conservative political groups and the Justice Department’s unprecedented seizure of Associated Press phone records as part of a leak investigation. There have been attempts to affix the term “gate” to every scandal or mini-scandal in the 40 years since Watergate, but these are perhaps the most reminiscent of that period when Richard Nixon was abusing his power to get at his “enemies” and subverting government agencies in the process. The difference this time, at least it appears, is that the president wasn’t the instigator.
The IRS has admitted that it targeted conservative political groups, including tea party affiliates, seeking tax-exempt status in recent years. It acknowledged this was wrong and apologized. But that shouldn’t be the end of it. This was a fundamental abuse of government power for political purposes. The questions are, who initiated it and who knew about it? IRS officials are saying it all began at lower levels, and higher-ups, including Acting Commissioner Steven Miller (who was fired by President Obama Wednesday) only found out about it after the fact — and kept that information from Congress. But we need to find out.
Attorney General Eric Holder said he plans to investigate, which would normally be reason to cheer. But it is his agency, the Justice Department, that has been going to great, unprecedented and outrageous lengths in an attempt to plug leaks to the press. It hasn’t broken into anyone’s psychiatrist’s office, like Nixon’s “plumbers,” but it has used prosecutions of journalists and their sources, and actions like the massive, secret seizure of AP phone logs revealed this week.
What was being investigated? How the AP got information about a thwarted plot by a Yemeni-based terrorist to blow up an airliner — information that the White House was about to reveal anyway at a press conference the day after the story was published. The AP said it held the story for a week, at the request of the White House and CIA, “because the sensitive intelligence operation was still under way.”
Holder claims not to have known about the seizure, which the Justice Department has not apologized or given legal justification for, and which appears to violate even the department’s own internal regulations for such investigations. But, again, we need to know whether he did know, and the president as well.
Conservatives are right to be outraged at these abuses, but their aim shouldn’t simply be to beat Obama up with them. They should join with liberals (who are also expressing outrage this time) in insisting that those responsible be held responsible, with prosecutions if laws were broken and rules changed as necessary to make sure it doesn’t happen again. And join them in a serious, overdue discussion about how far government can go to curtail civil liberties and individual rights by invoking the magic words “national security.”
These transgressions are about more than politics, and shouldn’t be seen or treated as such. They involve legal and constitutional issues of great consequence.