Why Three Scandals Don't Add Up to Three Strikes
Suddenly, Washington is mired in scandal. President Barack Obama is on the defensive, trying to fend off criticism of his administration on three fronts: that it covered-up mistakes in handling the diplomatic compound attack in Benghazi, Libya; that the Internal Revenue Service harassed conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status; and that the Justice Department stepped on the First Amendment with its two-month sweep-up of Associated Press phone records.
There's a little something for everyone -- civil libertarians, foreign policy geeks, the tax-resistance movement, Big Brother conspiracy theorists -- in this triple threat.
For Republicans, the scandals could be the gift that keeps on giving for many months. The controversies help them cover up an internal civil war over the party's future and lack of a legislative game plan. While Obama is in damage-control mode, his agenda, mainly gun control and immigration reform, is stalled, as are a half-dozen of his Cabinet and agency nominees.
The scandals also give Republicans a unified narrative that goes something like this: Obama and his appointees are assaulting core values -- freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The administration, moreover, is abusing its powers to tax (or not) by harassing political enemies. Add it all up, and you get an administration that sees itself as above the law, accountable to no one.
It's a powerful narrative, and it could even help Republicans strengthen their House majority in the 2014 midterm elections -- maybe even win back control of the Senate.
Or not. For Republicans to benefit politically, they have to hope that voters overlook the messy details surrounding each matter. If they don't, the Republican case fizzles.
Begin with Benghazi. We now know that the Sept. 11, 2012, attack, which resulted in the deaths of four people, including the U.S. ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, was orchestrated by al-Qaeda-linked jihadists. The attack wasn't a spontaneous street reaction to an anti-Islam video, as the Obama administration would have had us believe at first. The White House stitched together anodyne talking points that Susan Rice, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, repeated on Sunday talk shows. All of that is old news.
Here's the new news: E-mails between the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department reveal differences of opinion over wording of the talking points and over who was to blame for the inadequate security. Someone excised references to al-Qaeda in the talking points. Republicans smell a cover-up, and are drawing comparisons to Watergate and other past political scandals, but Benghazi-gate this isn't.
Even if the talking points were deliberately watered down (versus reduced to the points on which all parties could agree), it stretches credulity that the White House did so because it feared Benghazi fallout could swing the outcome of the 2012 election.
Diluting talking points may be weak-kneed, but it's not illegal. Internecine squabbles between the CIA and State are a venerated tradition, especially in Republican administrations. And not beefing up security at a vulnerable diplomatic compound had tragic consequences, for which Republican insistence on cutting the State Dept.'s budget is partly to blame.
The AP matter is more serious. The Justice Department obtained two months of phone records in an effort to find who leaked classified information about a 2012 CIA operation in Yemen. The agency had foiled a plot to set off a bomb on a plane headed to the U.S. The operation's success was leaked to the Associated Press, which broke the story.
In most cases involving media organizations, First Amendment lawyers have a chance to quash subpoenas for reporters' records -- and they often do. Justice, however, didn't give the AP a chance to voluntarily comply with a records request, and never told the news group that its phone records had been subpoenaed.
The AP accuses Justice lawyers of acquiring records that went beyond the scope of its investigation, including cell, office and home phone records of dozens of reporters and editors. The investigation's supervisor, Deputy Attorney General James Cole, said in a letter on Tuesday that the subpoenas didn't seek the content of any calls.
That may or may not calm the press fury. But media-gate may not have political legs for Republicans, either. After all, they were the ones who demanded that a special prosecutor investigate the source of the AP leak. Republicans suspected it was done by a White House official looking to boost Obama's pre-election, terror-fighting credentials. Now, House Speaker John Boehner is decrying the subpoena. "The First Amendment is first for a reason," said Michael Steel, Boehner's spokesman. "If the administration is going after reporters' phone records, they better have a damned good explanation."
As a matter of fact, they do: Justice is aggressively pursuing leaks of classified information to the news media. Yes, the very reporters that Republicans accuse of being in thrall to Obama. If anything, AP-gate should endear Obama to Republicans.
The IRS portion of the scandal triad may be the hardest for Obama to weather, especially now that the agency's inspector general has found numerous examples of mismanagement that allowed “inappropriate criteria” to be used to single out conservative groups for more than 18 months.
Congressional Republicans are on the hunt to find out which IRS or administration officials knew about the targeting, and if they misled Congress when they said no such profiling had occurred. IRS misdeeds easily arouse populist ire, and Republicans will almost certainly use this episode in their midterm campaign attack ads. Two House and two Senate committees are looking into the matter. And Attorney General Eric Holder has begun a criminal investigation.
The IRS's goal was laudable: It was looking to stop 501(c)(4) nonprofits from getting tax-exempt status if they were engaging in improper political activity.
It was the method that violated agency rules, and possibly federal law: The IRS singled out 471 groups and requested reams of information about their activities, donors and affiliations. Most of the crackdown took place in a Cincinnati IRS office, which used Google to search for groups with "Tea Party," "patriot," or "9/12" in their titles. Such targeting began in 2010, and top IRS Washington officials knew about it as early as May 2012.
If the IRS had targeted Democratic-leaning organizations as well, it might have avoided this kerfuffle. It's entirely possible that phony 501(c)(4)s are exploiting the law to raise political money while not revealing their donors' identities.
But wait, that did happen. As Bloomberg News reported, the IRS had its eye on three Democratic-leaning groups, and in 2011 denied tax-exempt status to one of them, San Francisco-based Emerge America, which trains Democratic women to run for office. That doesn't excuse the politicization of the IRS, but it could take some of the heat off the agency.
(Paula Dwyer is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow her on Twitter.)