What in tarnation is going on in this town? First, the I.R.S. decides to get selective about which applications for tax exempt status to hold up, raising the spectre of political intimidation. Then, next thing we know, the Department of Justice decides to do a massive-but-secret dragnet of both professional and personal telephone records of scores of journalists working for the Associated Press because, well, surprise, there was a “leak” that the government needed to find and plug.
Back in the day when I was a Trinity student, there was a group of shady guys who called themselves the Plumbers. They looked for leaks at the behest of the most notorious president in our history, Richard Milhous Nixon. We always thought Nixon was up to something that offended basic rights and liberties.
But the Obama Administration? Hope and Change? Let’s hope that this terrible string of events is not change for the worse!
From where I sit, this is not at all political, although it’s all about politics, to be sure. But regardless of political party affiliation, citizens everywhere can be rightfully dismayed and angry when government officials misuse their power in ways that violate the most basic covenants of our society.
Covenant #1: Freedom of the Press is a basic right guaranteed by the Constitution, and government restrains the press at its severe peril.
Covenant #2: The taxing authority must never be used to harass or intimidate political opponents. Period. What’s to discuss about that?
Pity Jay Carney, the White House press secretary; he’s had a very bad week. Or two. He needs his boss to tell his peeps to cut this stuff out!
Attorney General Eric Holder met with the press today — to his credit, he answered questions and did not shrink from the criticism about the A.P mess. He said that he had recused himself from the decision about subpoenas for the phone records because he had participated in an FBI interview about the leak in question — a matter having to do with terrorist activity. Some commentators have already pointed out that the A.P. scandal is due, in no small part, to the Patriot Act and this nation’s obsession with national security to the point that we’ve all already sacrificed many individual liberties in the name of security.
But, still! A massive sweep of journalists’ phone records? Imagine the number of sources who might be exposed, who will never cooperate again in the effort of journalists to ferret out the truth. That’s what’s really at stake: the silencing of sources, the chilling of conversation, the end of tips and trails that might lead to important news that should be made public. That’s what the press is supposed to do, and the government cannot, and should not, ever attempt to stop that process.
Meanwhile, over at the I.R.S., there’s certainly a skewed view of the world and how to do the simplest of tasks, like fairly applying the rules for the evaluation of 501(c)(4) applications. Ok, not so simple, but really, didn’t it occur to them that flagging applications that say “Tea Party” might be a mistake? Maybe they thought it was so simple they let cavemen do it. Or did they think it was the House of Lipton trying to go all tax exempt?
Mother Jones has correctly pointed out that the taxing authority has been used by both political parties over the years to try to intimidate the opposition. No excuse. Other commentators have correctly pointed out that the 501(c)(4) rules need a complete overhaul, and they are right. But that’s no excuse, either. (Full disclosure: I used to teach a course in Tax Exempt Organizations at Georgetown Law School. The bombshell at the start of each class: the National Football League is tax exempt! Go figure….)
Thomas Jefferson said it very well: “If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter.” If we didn’t have a free press, how would we have learned about the I.R.S. debacle, the A.P. scandal, the dramatic play of politics and power that goes on relentlessly in this city?
The sad part of all of these needless scandals is that the real issues that need urgent attention are languishing. Reasonable regulation of guns is all but dead. Immigration reform is fading. Implementation of healthcare reform is on a rocky road. Our government still does not have a budget and the impact of sequestration is hurting many people who don’t have the clout to get attention. Even the press — God love them, our free press — often get overwrought about the wrong things, ignoring serious problems.
Nobody should envy President Obama his job, now made that much more difficult by fairly stupid and ill-considered actions of government agents he probably never met. But the tone starts at the top. What a president in crisis should do right now is order every single person who works for this government to take two giant steps back, a deep breath, and reconsider any and all ridiculous actions that he or she might have been about to commit.
Trampling on fundamental rights and liberties, using governmental power to intimidate political foes — those are tactics of petty tyrants, not enlightened public servants.