President Obama has had a tough week, and it's about to get a lot worse.
The past few days have seen a cascade of evidence that the administration not only feigned transparency, but may have covered up the politicization of the IRS and the response to the terrorist attack on the Benghazi consulate. Whistle-blowers on the Benghazi response moved that story back into the headlines, but not for long. Because on Friday, the IRS admitted that it had targeted conservative groups for aggressive investigations. And that wasn't even the worst of the scandals.
On top of everything, Obama's Department of Justice spied on the AP, and may have found a way to alienate a national press that had done its best to downplay any hint of corruption in this White House.
Let's start with the Benghazi attack and the issue of what the White House knew and when. This scandal has bubbled below the surface for the past few months, but the embarrassing shift more than a week after the attack from the fiction that the attack started as a demonstration over a YouTube video to a belated acknowledgment that it had been a planned terrorist attack — and that there had been no demonstration at all — had not been forgotten on Capitol Hill.
Three State Department career employees finally came forward to tell Congress last week that no one had even suggested to the State Department that a demonstration had taken place. Gregory Hicks, who was the deputy chief of mission in Libya, told the House Oversight panel that he personally briefed Hillary Clinton during the attack, and that no demonstration had taken place, and that the supposedly catalytic YouTube film about Mohammed was a "non-factor" on the ground. Hicks also said that his "jaw dropped" when he heard Susan Rice tell five different Sunday talk shows that the attack started with a spontaneous demonstration at the consulate, directly contradicting what Libya's president was telling U.S. news outlets at the same time.
Eric Nordstrom undercut the White House defense of relying on a rather soft scolding from its Accountability Review Board by accusing the panel of deliberately overlooking the role of senior State Department officials in ignoring a string of urgent requests for more security. That has also happened before, and resulted in attacks on American embassies in 1998. Who was in charge of security issues then? Why, the same man who holds the position today — Under Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy, Nordstrom pointed out:
"[The ARB] has decided to fix responsibility on the assistant secretary level and below. And the message to my colleagues is that if you're above a certain level, no matter what your decision is no one's going to question it. I look back and I see the last time we had a major attack was East Africa. Who was in that same position, when the unheeded messengers… were raising those concerns? It just so happens it was the same person. The under secretary for management was in that same role before."
Later, ABC's Jon Karl reported that the administration changed the CIA talking points on Benghazi 12 times before Rice's appearances on Sept. 16. CIA Director David Petraeus called the final product "useless" on Sept. 15 and advised against using the talking points, to no avail. The White House sent Rice out with the talking points, while both Obama and Hillary Clinton repeated the claims about the YouTube video — with Obama referencing the claim in a Sept. 25 speech at the U.N. The White House had rinsed the talking points for political purposes, and continued to evade the truth about Benghazi.
And this was the least of the scandals that erupted over the last week. The IRS scandal was entirely new, and at first blush bad enough to drive the Benghazi story out of the headlines. Lois Lerner admitted that her IRS unit overseeing tax-exempt groups had expressly targeted groups with words like "Tea Party," "Patriot," and "9/12" in their names for extra scrutiny. Lerner claimed that this took place only last year among "low-level workers" in the Cincinnati office that handles those applications. Over the weekend, though, it became clear that Lerner left a lot of other information out.
As leaks from an upcoming Inspector General report began on Saturday and rolled through today, a much different picture emerged. The enhanced scrutiny wasn't applied only on the basis of word searches, but also to any groups critical of the way government was being run. The extra scrutiny didn't start in June 2012, as Lerner claimed, but in March 2010 — before the midterms, when Tea Party groups campaigned in opposition to the ObamaCare bill that passed (coincidentally?) in that same month.
Managers from two different units began coordinating those efforts as early as April 2010. Lerner had learned of it in 2011, not just recently, as her apology implied. So had the chief counsel of the IRS, seven months before then-IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman testified in two different House hearings that no such special scrutiny was being applied. The current commissioner, Steve Miller, found out in May 2012 — but Miller failed to mention it to Congress in testimony given the following month. The activist watchdog site ProPublica announced late Monday that the IRS leaked nine of the applications — which were supposed to be kept confidential — to their reporters late in 2012. All nine files were from conservative groups.
As bad as that was, the IRS scandal wasn't even the worst news for Obama. Just when he needed a sympathetic media to help downplay the politicization of the IRS and the rinsing of the Benghazi talking points (which Obama dismissed as "no there there" in a Monday press conference), the Associated Press announced that the Department of Justice had seized two months of phone records of as many as 100 of its reporters and three of its offices. The presumed trigger for this was a leak investigation into a May 2012 story about the CIA operation in Yemen that kept an airliner bomb plot from reaching fruition. Rather than alert the AP that it would subpoena the phone records, the DOJ seized them secretly, claiming that notifying the AP would "pose a substantial threat to the investigation" — even though the AP can't bury the records of the phone companies involved, even if it were inclined to try.
Suddenly, conservative claims of active intimidation and pressure from the White House looked a lot less conspiratorial to the media. Erik Wemple at the Washington Post called the action "a dagger to the heart of AP's news-gathering activity." What source will trust that their identity will remain anonymous if the government can seize the phone records without warning? The ACLU called it "an unacceptable abuse of power," which is what conservative groups had called the IRS's attack on them for most of the past three years.
What does the harmonic convergence of these stories tell us? First, it's clear that at the very least, this administration has allowed abuses of power to run unchecked for years — out of ignorance at best, and malice at worst. The extraordinary attack on the AP and its reporting may get the media's attention, but the attempt to massage the Benghazi attack through 12 sets of talking points and to allow the nation's tax power to harass and attack the administration's opponents present at least as great an injury to accountability and representative democracy. Perhaps now that the media has also become a target for the administration, its various outlets might start taking these injuries a little more seriously.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Is it now OK to have sex with animals?
- After Ferguson: Stop deferring to the cops
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- How to adopt the perfect rescue dog
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- How to stop Black Thursday — and still score that big screen
- This judge is the reason we're still fighting over net neutrality
- The lessons of Japan's latest recession
- The hilarious hypocrisy of Republicans complaining about the imperial presidency
Subscribe to the Week