The developing scandals involving the Internal Revenue Service and the Justice Department have this much in common: They reveal a rather stunning level of hubris within the Obama administration.
Twice in recent months, federal authorities breached walls of propriety and put civil liberties at risk when:
—Federal investigators secretly seized two months of phone records of reporters and editors of The Associated Press. The Justice Department informed the news cooperative on Friday that it had obtained the records for more than 20 telephone lines of the AP’s offices and journalists, including both their home and mobile phones. The feds haven’t said why they wanted the records, but they have been trying to identify who leaked information about the CIA’s disruption of a terrorist plot in Yemen to blow up an airliner. The AP broke the story last May; it had withheld publication at the White House’s request for several days over national security concerns.
—IRS officials in Washington and at least two other offices targeted conservative groups that were seeking tax-exempt status. Lois G. Lerner, who is in charge of tax-exempt groups for the IRS, said the decision to target groups with “tea party,” “patriot” or “9/12” in their names was “absolutely inappropriate.” Indeed, it was, and Republicans and others are justifiably livid; congressional hearings have been promised. President Barack Obama has condemned the snooping. Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday opened a criminal investigation.
There is no justification for either of these attacks on civil liberties.
The IRS must be rigorously neutral in its actions; the selective targeting of conservative groups undermines that goal and begs the question: Who else were they targeting? Top IRS officials apparently knew of the effort as early as May of last year and some top Republicans, including Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, say they were questioning the agency about rumors of the efforts to target tea party groups shortly after that. Why did it take so long for the IRS to come clean? Did the fact it was an election year come into play?
“Knowing what we know now,” Hatch said, “the IRS was at best being far from forth coming, or at worst, being deliberately dishonest with Congress.”
The Justice Department, meantime, apparently needs a primer on the First Amendment after the sweeping seizure of phone records at the AP.
“These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the news gathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP’s news gathering operations, and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know,” Gary Pruitt, the president and chief executive of AP, wrote in a letter to Holder.
“The scope of the Department’s subpoena is stunning,” Journal Sentinel executives wrote in their own letter to Holder released on Tuesday (the Journal Sentinel is a member of the AP). “This extraordinary action by the Department should be thoroughly reviewed and leaves the news media, including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, with great concern about this and any other potential government intrusion into news gathering activities.”
Under its own rules, the Justice Department can subpoena journalists’ phone records only as a last resort, and the subpoenas must be as narrow as possible. The attorney general must approve the subpoenas, and usually news organizations are given prior notice so that they can lodge a complaint in court if they choose. “The Department also appears to have ignored nearly every procedural aspect of the guidelines,” the Journal Sentinel letter noted.
The sweeping records seizure stems from an unrelenting effort to plug leaks within this White House. No other administration has been so aggressive. And while it’s true that a dangerous world demands a smart and judicious security strategy, this was neither. The Justice Department overstepped, and the administration owes the AP an apology.
A spokesman for Republican House majority leader Eric Cantor of Virginia tied the phone records seizure to the IRS controversy, claiming “these new revelations suggest a pattern of intimidation by the Obama administration.”
We wouldn’t go quite that far — yet. But overzealous? You bet. On both counts.