In my first NJJN column, I expressed my concerns about the future of the United States. I stated that I support the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the federalist, representative republican form of government set forth in the Constitution.
The unfolding events in Washington of the past week compel me to return to this theme. They remind us that the framers of the Constitution were suspicious of big, remote government, so they separated the powers of government and wrote strict rules for its operation. Additionally, the Bill of Rights put constraints on the power of the federal government over individuals and the states.
Three major controversies consumed Washington last week: Benghazi; the Justice Department’s fishing expedition against the Associated Press; and the Internal Revenue Service’s selective treatment of conservative groups.
The AP story is about an assault on the First Amendment’s freedom of the press. Justice secretly obtained two months of records for 20 separate work and personal phone lines of reporters and editors in three AP offices. AP protested the breadth of the seizure. Justice said it was investigating a security leak.
Plausible deniability is a term coined by the CIA in the Kennedy years to describe the withholding of information from senior officials in order to protect them from repercussions in the event that illegal or unpopular activities became public knowledge. It permits a major player to avoid “blowback” by secretly arranging for an action to be taken by a third party ostensibly unconnected with the major player. In government and politics, it is the Sgt. Schultz defense, “I hear nothing, I see nothing, I know nothing! I was not here.”
Echoing his Sgt. Schultz — a character in the inexplicably popular TV series Hogan’s Heroes — imitation in the Fast and Furious gunwalking kerfuffle, Attorney General Eric Holder again took the position that he knew nothing about the AP document raid.
Then there are the unanswered questions about Benghazi. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had her famous meltdown while testifying before Congress, she famously said, “What difference at this point does it make?”
After whistleblower testimony before Congress and the e-mail disclosed in the Republican report on Benghazi, we know that White House spokesperson Jay Carney was not truthful with the press and public that there had been only one minor change to the CIA talking points used by Ambassador Susan Rice. Terrorism and Al Qaida were mentioned in the original, only to be excised in 12 major edits at the insistence of commenters from the State Department and the White House. Then CIA-Director David Petraeus objected to the final talking points which were used by Rice in her news show appearances.
We still don’t know who misleadingly placed the blame for the attacks on an anti-Mohammed video, who denied Ambassador Chris Stevens’ request for additional security, and who issued the stand-down order which denied military relief to Stevens’ besieged party.
But the biggie of last week’s scandal trifecta is the disclosure of the targeting of conservative groups by the IRS. Not only were groups with “tea party” or “patriot” in their names given the IRS version of waterboarding, but so were groups advocating for support of the Constitution and groups thought to be out of step with public policy. So much for First Amendment freedoms of speech and assembly.
The timing of the targeting is suspect since it occurred between the 2010 Tea Party revolution and the 2012 presidential election. The spin by administration supporters is that this is the handiwork of a few rogue agents. (A staffer in Cincinnati said they only operate on directives from headquarters.) However, in March 2012, seven Senate Democrats, including New York’s Chuck Schumer, asked the IRS to restrict the amount of money a tax-exempt organization can spend on political activities. Although they did not identify the targets by name or ideology, the senators warned that they will introduce legislation doing so if the IRS failed to act soon.
The IRS also targeted the pro-Israel group Z Street, alleging that it might be funding terrorism.
When asked about targeting in his appearance last week before Congress, out-going IRS commissioner Steven Miller asserted that targeting is not illegal. Really? Isn’t that profiling?
This administration — which wanted to restore the credibility of big government and claims to be the most transparent and ethical administration in history — is leading us into the Orwellian world of Big Brother where constitutional rights will no longer meaningfully exist.
New York Times columnist David Brooks got it right in his May 16 column about bad government: people who go into government not only have a tendency to want to control other people but also to control information. Brooks notes a “values problem” in the federal government: a “few or many agencies where the leaders don’t emphasize that workers need to check themselves, or risk losing what remains of the people’s trust.”
In January, a Pew Research poll found that trust in the federal government was near a historic low, and for the first time, a majority (53 percent) says that the federal government threatens their personal rights and freedoms. The scandal trifecta will only make things worse.