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President Obama's Big Brother Problem


While the politicized talking points used after the Benghazi attacks were generally accepted by most Americans as having been no worse than “mishandled,” brewing scandals at the IRS and DOJ have Americans of all stripes outraged and rethinking everything that comes out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Let's take a look at a week's worth of scandals.


The internal investigations and Congressional hearings that followed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice's Sunday morning talking points failed to reveal more than internal bickering between multiple agencies (mostly the State Department and the CIA) on what information would and wouldn't be presented. But when the media began reporting on what were later characterized as leaked emails, the story shifted to one in which the administration was officially intervening on behalf of the State Department, giving way to speculation that it might have done so to protect itself during the 2012 election, while also providing cover for Secretary of State Clinton.

However, it became apparent that the initial reports were not based on an actual email, but rather third-party accounts of it, which wound up inaccurately framing what had in fact been communicated. The actual email from then-Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes said in part, “There is a ton of wrong information getting out into the public domain from Congress and people who are not particularly informed. Insofar as we have firmed up assessments that don’t compromise intel or the investigation, we need to have the capability to correct the record, as there are significant policy and messaging ramifications that would flow from a hardened mis-impression.”

ABC News, however, had reported (noting that it was a summary provided by a source) that the email said, “We must make sure that the talking points reflect all agency equities, including those of the State Department, and we don’t want to undermine the FBI investigation. We thus will work through the talking points tomorrow morning at the Deputies Committee meeting.” Hence, the media focus on “protecting the State Department,” which dominated a 48-hour news cycle.

Information regarding the Benghazi attack clearly was not well-disseminated. It appears clear that there were internal disagreements within the CIA about a number of issues, including whether the attack was pre-planned, or the result of demonstrations like similar ones in Cairo that occurred over an anti-Muslim video produced in the U.S. It also appears clear that FBI officials were also expressing concern over how much and what information be released at that time, and that there were plenty of competing ideas between the CIA, FBI and State Department as to how it would be best said to the public. The reported collusion between the White House and State Department, however, does not seem to have been demonstrated to this point. But the obvious political motivations for presenting it as they did raised questions which were not helped by the events that followed.

IRS Scandal

In recent years, the Internal Revenue Service says it has seen an upswing in 501(c)(4) applications, a popular vehicle for politically-oriented groups. In most cases, 501(c)(4) groups do not have to publicly disclose donor lists, making them, for obvious reasons, an attractive designation for such outfits. However, the designation is supposed to prevent these organizations which are to be “operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare,” from being overtly political – though definitions and limits to what would constitute that are murky at best.

The IRS may well have felt that the code was being abused; however, it seems that the agents began selective enforcement based on political persuasion, namely groups that were likely to be associated with the Tea Party movement. This is troubling to say the least. Even if the IRS found some sort of pattern related to these groups – which there is no evidence of – there would have to be some sort of established policy or protocols developed, which was not the case. The term witch hunt comes to mind.

What's worse, just like the State Department in the Benghazi incident, it seems like much of what the IRS first acknowledged painted a rosier picture than they knew to be the case. Initially, the agency blamed low-level employees, maintaining that no high-level officials knew of the policy. But according to a leaked report by the Inspector General's office, the head of the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt organizations learned at a meeting on June 29 of 2011, that right-wing groups were being targeted. It's one of these instances where someone gets caught red handed robbing banks, asks how much is missing, then admits to having taken exactly that much, without mentioning additional loot until it turns up.

It seems clear that the abuses originated from within the agency, without direction from outside or even from the top of within the IRS. Regardless of how they were reported, they were stopped by superiors and the internal response would not be a function of the White House. The commissioner at the time, Douglas Shulman, who had been appointed by President Bush, has since resigned. His deputy commissioner, Stephen Miller, is the current acting commissioner for the agency.

Miller seems to have quite a bit of explaining to do. Following his May 2012 Congressional briefing on how the IRS reviews applications for tax-exempt status, Miller wrote two letters to Congress, neither of which mentioned the targeting of Tea Party groups. That July he testified before the House Ways and Means oversight subcommittee on "organizational and compliance issues related to public charities." During his testimony, Miller was specifically asked by Republican members about groups being targeted, and he failed to disclose that he had in fact been briefed on the targeting of Tea Party groups by IRS staff.

As I said, this is all very troubling and Miller, along with the staff members who implemented and carried out the policy need to be held accountable (editor's update: Miller resigned under pressure from Treasury Secretary Jack Lew late Wednesday, soon after the Justice Department announced a criminal investigation into the affair). Being that the Tea Party is at essence an anti-tax group (the Tea, supposedly an acronym for Taxed Enough Already) and that many Libertarian members of the groups have called for the abolishment of the agency, targeting them could be seen as more than partisan, even direct retribution for expressing negative sentiments toward the agency itself. Nonetheless, from what we know, it seems to be an "IRS scandal," not a "White House scandal." Until we learn of some sort of connection, I'm not sure that it's reasonable to associate the actions of Shulman, Miller or agents in an Ohio field office with the President, who by law couldn't contact the agency on the matter due to a post-Watergate statute aimed at preventing Presidential abuses.

AP Records Seizure

While the Benghazi and IRS scandals did not link the White House to wrongdoing, they certainly did nothing to bolster trust in government before a third scandal hit – one that the administration would not so easily distance itself from.

On Monday, the Associated Press announced that the Justice Department had seized office telephone records for 20 AP reporters over a two-month period in 2012. The news co-op described the acts as a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into news-gathering operations.

The Justice Department, whose credibility was already badly damaged by the Fast and Furious scandal, would not say why it sought the records, but it has been reported that the U.S. Attorney's Office had opened a criminal investigation into an AP story from May 7 of this year, regarding a CIA operation that reportedly stopped a terrorist plot to detonate a bomb on an airplane.

The media was rightfully livid. The White House said it had no direct knowledge of the records seizure, though this time there was little to suggest that such could have been the case. Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein called it nonsense. "This is a matter of policy," Bernstein told MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, who noted that the Obama Administration had targeted suspected leakers in cases more than twice as often as all other administrations combined. "It is known to the President of the United States that this is the policy,” continued Bernstein, “and to say that there was no knowledge, in quotes, 'specifically about this' in the White House is nonsense ... the idea is to make an example of those people who talk to reporters, especially on national security matters. National security is always the false claim of administrations trying to hide things that people ought to know."

Bernstein's Watergate partner Bob Woodward drew some fire when he suggested back in February that the administration had grown heavy-handed on such matters, claiming he had been told by a senior White House staffer that he would "regret" releasing information that they "didn't see eye to eye on," even if they weren't arguing its factual accuracy. At the time, many in the media lampooned Woodward as being egocentric and petty. In light of what became known this week, Woodward's statements are again raising eyebrows and what may be even more disturbing than the fact that they're seizing the records, is the back door way in which the DOJ is going about it.

It was a bad week for the President, and while some of it may have little to do with things he knew or controlled, the AP seizure compounds government mistrust in a way that can't help but hurt him on the others. The confused narrative on Benghazi was clearly favorable to a President seeking reelection, campaigning largely on the notion that such terror groups had been all but obliterated, and couldn't hurt a Secretary of State thinking about a run for the office next time out.

When it comes to uncertainties among politicians, people usually look around to see who's covering their derriere. Beyond that, you have to fall back on trust. When it seems to be White House policy to intimidate those who might communicate with a free press on critical issues, you'll likely find that resource in short supply, especially if you're willing to violate the first amendment in order to do so.

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.


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