Let's Fix This Country
governing

“Scandals” Put the U.S. On Hold

The Benghazi cover-up allegations, the Internal Revenue Service targeting right-wing organizations, the Justice Department's secret snooping of Associated Press phone records — the scandals bring the certainty that the government will grind to a halt. They have entirely changed the subject for months to come and will neatly segue into preoccupation with the mid-term elections. After that our now two-year process of choosing a president will begin. While Democrats cringe in despair,
Curiously detached and unaware

Republicans have won a trifecta of distractions to guarantee that Obama’s agenda — whatever that may be — will founder and nothing will be done to resolve the nation's systemic problems for another three-and-a-half years.

Yes, the deaths of Americans in Benghazi most certainly warranted thorough investigation. Yes, The IRS selectively ferreting out only conservative non-profit applicants to stall or prevent granting them tax exempt status is a scandal and an outrage. Yes, heads should roll for Justice spying on the press and inhibiting press freedom, a continuation of the Obama administration's sorry record of prosecuting those who probe his secret government.

But politicians and politics have turned these important matters into a circus, distorting them for political gain. Do we need five committees in the House of Representatives vying for publicity by churning the heavily plowed ground of Benghazi? One count has it that half the members of the House are tied up in these committees. Each member waits for the spotlight to come his or her way, their chance to make statements posing as questions while staffers alert their districts’ television nightly news stations. We taxpayers are paying their salaries for all this self-promotion.

Benghazi

That the administration performed cosmetic surgery on the Benghazi "talking points", sensitive to the risks for each branch, gives Republicans a legitimate claim of cover-up. The e-mails that could have been released long ago show how the State Department and CIA removed references to extremist threats to keep the truth from the American public. Add to that Thomas Pickering, co-chair with Admiral Mike Mullen of the Accountability Review Board that was assigned to review Benghazi, saying they did not think it necessary to question Hillary Clinton or even her two closest aides because they felt mistakes were made at lower levels. He lamely deemed it sufficient that "we had questioned people who had attended meetings with her", which fed into the Republican narrative that the former Secretary of State had been shielded from accountability for what she was indeed responsible for: the indifferent attention to the security of our embassies and consulates in the danger zones of the world.

Fixing that has not been the concern of the Congressional committees, either. It was a bigger show to obsess over why neither the tiny special forces team in Tripoli nor fighter jets at Aviano were dispatched, long after it was established that neither could have reached Benghazi in time or made a difference.

And no one seems to ask the State Department why Ambassador Stevens chose to go to the most hazardous end of Libya, awash with weapons where al Qaeda has gained a foothold, was allowed to waive extra security at a loosely guarded consulate, and went on the anniversary of 9/11 just when the Arab world was incensed over some half-wit's anti-Islam video on YouTube.

Republicans are obviously using Benghazi to lay the groundwork to undermine Hillary Clinton’s assumed run for the presidency in 2016. We will see Benghazi over and over in attack ads as the elections near. Karl Rove’s Super PAC, American Crossroads, is already out with an ad blaming her. Representative Steve King (R-Ia) tells us, "If you link Watergate and Iran-Contra together and multiply it times maybe 10 or so, you're going to get in the zone where Benghazi is". James Inhofe (R-Ok) concurs: “Of all the great cover-ups in history — the Pentagon papers, Iran-Contra, Watergate", Benghazi "is going to go down as most egregious cover-up in American history".

Really? 25 officials went to jail over Watergate, and President Nixon was forced to resign. Of course Inhofe suggests that President Obama could be impeached.

This hyperventilating is rank dishonesty for crude political advantage. Fox News, talk radio and bloggers have been delivering that message for eight months to good effect. The outfit Public Policy Poling found that 41% of Republicans think Benghazi is the "biggest political scandal in American history". Never mind that Americans don't know their own history and, said the poll, half of them could not find Benghazi on a map.

IRS thumb on the scales

Benghazi was screw-ups and cover-ups. The truer scandal is the IRS exercising political prejudice. There was valid concern leading up to this past election that groups were cheating to be awarded non-profit and therefore tax-free status by claiming only to be involved in "social welfare" activity, as the law requires, while in fact engaging in political issue advertising. Testing those claims was the IRS's job. But after it was revealed that the IRS targeted only right wing groups, using keywords like "tea party" to find them in its haystack, and without the balance of challenging left-wing groups in equal measure — that can rightly be called scandalous.

And they went beyond, looking for groups that “criticized the government and sought to educate Americans about the U.S. Constitution”, reported the Washington Post.

This is how trust in government is destroyed. We all deal with the IRS and we are therefore left to wonder whether the government, which now listens in on everything we do, is choosing those who criticize the administration for retaliation by its auditing weapon.

So, no question that this corrupting of the IRS should be thoroughly investigated. But here again there are already three overlapping Congressional committees that want to go before the cameras to wow the folks back home. And we have George Will beginning a column by already reciting from the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon — hint, hint — this despite the lack (so far) of any connection between Obama and the Cincinnati IRS malefactors. Or is it now grounds for impeachment if the President doesn’t know about everything in this enormous government, even in agencies such as the IRS where he is not supposed to meddle? For George Will the answer is apparently "yes". He finds "amazingly convenient [Obama's] failure to superintend the excesses of some executive branch employees beyond the Allegheny Mountains".

Much will trickle out from the affected non-profits, many of which were stalled in their application by letters from the IRS with dozens of questions betraying bias, such as one asking a group "to submit a letter...saying it would not protest Planned Parenthood", as reported by The Weekly Standard. We can expect this story to go on and on.

How to head it off? Appoint an independent counsel. Every administration should have one. We had Ken Starr for Clinton’s, Patrick Fitzgerald for Bush’s. That's should strike fear enough in this administration. But only if the deal is (a) shut down all Congressional committees; they would collide with the counsel and (b) restrict the counsel to the IRS matter alone, so we do not give birth to another Ken Starr, who went from looking for foul play in the death of deputy White House counsel Vince Foster, to the fired White House travel agents, to Clinton's Whitewater real estate investments, to a sexual harassment suit by one Paula Jones, and to the affair with Monica Lewinsky — searching for whatever could be found to get that president impeached.

AP phone records

The First Amendment forbids laws "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press". That the Justice Department secretly snooped on the phone traffic of 20 phone lines of the Associated Press and its reporters constitutes just that. It abridges by preventing the press from investigating the secrets of government by tipping off sources that the government is watching. Sources go silent. It abridges by making members of the press wary, prone to second thoughts about the consequences of aggressive reporting (they have families) if they believe the government is monitoring their activity. Are news gathering organizations other than the AP wondering whether Justice is tracking them as well? This is how we someday arrive at a point where we read and hear little more than what the government wants us to know.

Gary Pruitt, the president and chief executive of the AP, called the Justice Department’s misconduct “a massive and unprecedented intrusion” into its news gathering activities, writing the following to Attorney General Eric Holder:

“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 A.P.’s news gathering operations, and disclose information about A.P.’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.”

Holder would not even reveal why his department purloined the phone records. It is about one of “the top two or three most serious leaks that I've ever seen" is all he would say. It is presumed to be an AP article of May 7, 2012 on the foiling of an al Qaeda plot to bomb a U.S. airliner. A search at AP yielded no results, but an article describing the plot and referring to the AP story is here. CEO Pruitt said that the AP had held up the story for several days "until the government assured us that the national security concerns had passed" and says the White House was about to go public with the story. Why therefore is this a leak. Moreover, CIA Director John Brennan says the plot posed no threat to Americans.

A year ago we wrote an article titled "Obama Has a Problem With the First Amendment", recounting that his administration's "attempts to silence federal employees and prosecute them under the Espionage Act have exceeded every administration in history". Justice’s brazen act takes this a step further.

There is a process for approaching the press: an open request for information followed by arguing for it in court if a request is refused. Justice followed no such protocol. It just grabbed what it wanted in secret. Charged with upholding the Constitution of the United States, it has violated the Constitution’s First Amendment. Michael Steele, the spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, said, "The First Amendment is first for a reason. If the Obama Administration is going after reporters' phone records, they better have a damned good explanation." There is no damned good explanation. Eric Holder should be fired.

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