IRS' ACTIONS RAISE DISTURBING QUESTIONS ABOUT INTENT
WASHINGTON -- The widening web of lies, deception and abuse of power in the IRS' outrageous targeting of conservative groups in the 2012 election cycle may be just the tip of the iceberg.
The deeper question to be asked and investigated is to what extent the Obama administration's hardball political tactics encouraged the agency's strong-arm war against groups who opposed President Obama's policies and re-election.
Obama denies he knew anything about the tax agency's unprecedented inquiries into the constitutionally protected freedoms of conservative groups who sought tax-exempt status for their educational and informational outreach efforts.
But the more immediate question that needs answering is how far up the ladder of authority in the government, and specifically the White House, did other officials know these abuses were being carried out.
The IRS, a supposedly independent agency, has already been caught in a major cover-up. Lois G. Lerner, who runs the program that oversees tax-exempt groups, said last week that "absolutely inappropriate" actions were taken only by a few "front-line people" in the IRS' Cincinnati office.
It turns out that IRS officials in their Washington, D.C., headquarters were sending out chilling letters of inquiry to conservative groups who had "tea party," "patriot" and "Constitution" in their names. The queries included long, detailed requests for information about their contributors, grants and donors, how much they gave and when the money was received. They even wanted to see speeches by leaders of these conservatives groups.
In one case, the IRS asked the Wetumpka Tea Party of Alabama for the names of any legislators that its members have talked to, and the names of all its volunteers.
"I was outraged," said Becky Gerritson, the group's president. "Being an election year, I felt like it was intimidation."
Larry Nordvig, president of the Richmond, Va., Tea Party, said his group applied for tax-exempt status at the end of 2009, but that they were not approved until July 2012. The lengthy inquiry had "a very chilling effect" on fundraising, he said.
One group whose activities were focused on voter fraud was told that its tax application was being reviewed here in Washington. Others got questionnaires from IRS offices in California. This was clearly a nationwide undertaking by the government.
Many wondered if the long holdup of their tax-exempt application and the inquisitional experience they endured was due to their opposition to the administration's policies. In a letter to the IRS in June 2011, an attorney for True the Vote in Houston, which was kept waiting for more than two years, asked if the group's "opposition to Obamacare and the takeover of America's health care system by the government is the reason that this application has been held up and not approved?"
In another case involving the long-delayed application for King Street Patriots, an IRS official told the group's president, "I'm just doing what Washington is telling me to do. I'm just asking what they want me to ask."
Since the story became public last week, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been receiving phone calls from whistle-blowers in the IRS, saying the scandal is more widespread than has been reported thus far.
The targeting campaign's activities were known by top officials at the agency as early as May 2012, when the presidential campaign was fully underway, according to GOP congressional staffers who were briefed by the IRS and the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA).
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that the IRS' acting commissioner, Steven T. Miller, and his deputy learned about the activities in Cincinnati last May. But that information was not made available to GOP lawmakers who had asked the IRS to respond to growing allegations from conservative leaders about the political targeting.
"I wrote to the IRS three times last year after hearing concerns that conservative groups were being targeted," said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the ranking Republican on the tax-writing Finance Committee.
"In response to the first letter I sent with some of my colleagues, Steven Miller, the current acting IRS commissioner, responded that these groups weren't being targeted.
"Knowing what we know now, the IRS was at best being far from forthcoming, or at worst, being deliberately dishonest with Congress," Hatch said in a statement.
And it's not just Republicans who are outraged. Sen. Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who chairs the Finance Committee, said: "These actions by the IRS are an outrageous abuse of power and a breach of the public's trust. The IRS will now be the ones put under additional scrutiny."
An armada of House and Senate committees are preparing hearings into the emerging scandal, including the House Ways and Means Committee, which has summoned IRS officials to testify Friday.
One of the questions that needs to be asked of these rogue IRS officials and their impertinent inquiries about our personal political activities is: Have they heard of the Bill of Rights?
Exactly what part of the First Amendment don't they understand? It says very clearly in the Constitution that "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press ..."
This also means that no government agency or federal official can subject law-abiding citizens to any interrogation about their political views, beliefs or associations.
But the government under Obama is now aggressively challenging those freedoms, and even denying them. The most recent example is the Justice Department's seizure of cellular, office and home telephone records of reporters and an editor at The Associated Press, the nation's largest news-gathering service.
The administration wants to know its sources for a story AP reported last year on a foiled al-Qaida plot. The AP's president called the document seizure a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into news-gathering activities and operations "that the government has no conceivable right to know."
When the government starts questioning our political associations and interferes in our right to organize, and then challenges the freedom of the press, we no longer live in a truly free society.
COPYRIGHT 2013 UNITED FEATURE SYNDICATE
SCANDALS DOG OBAMA'S TROUBLED PRESIDENCY
WASHINGTON -- Barack Obama's second term may be remembered more for his scandals than for anything else he's done thus far in his troubled presidency.
It's hard enough trying to put out one fire, but the White House now has three fires burning out of control at once -- igniting a torrent of investigations on Capitol Hill, a criminal investigation in the Justice Department and the resignation of the man who ran the IRS.
The scandal over the Obama administration's handling -- and apparent cover-up -- of last year's al-Qaida-driven attack on our consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that led to the murder of our ambassador and three other Americans is showing no signs of going away.
It began with questions about why the desperate pleas for added security from U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens went unheeded at Obama's State Department. Then it morphed into the White House's dubious claim that the killings resulted from a protest that just got out of hand. It turned into something a great deal more sinister when the administration's talking points went to great lengths to downplay, or even refute, that this was a terrorist attack by an al-Qaida-affiliated group.
Days went by before the White House could admit the Benghazi assault was a terrorist act. Any admission that al-Qaida was involved came even later as the scandal's fires intensified. More recently, a State Department official told a House hearing he knew it was a terrorist action from day one.
Getting information from the White House has been like pulling teeth. At a news conference this week, Obama was dismissing Republican criticisms about the administration's multiple explanations of the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attacks as nothing more than a political "side show."
That dismissive counterattack ranks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's insensitive, "What difference does it make?" remark at a Senate hearing into the murders and their aftermath.
Then on Wednesday, Obama's administration grudgingly released what GOP leaders were seeking -- 100 pages of emails that revealed multiple, heavily laundered drafts of its talking points about what happened.
The emails revealed that the explanations went through a dozen revisions, showing that the State Department was more concerned with how the talking points would play on Capitol Hill, especially among its Republican critics.
Dropped from the draft, for example, were references to the CIA's early warnings about potential terrorist violence at the U.S. consulate.
Victoria Nuland, who was then the State Department's spokeswoman, emailed on the evening of Sept. 14 that the agency's warning "could be abused by members (of Congress) to beat the State Department ... so why do we want to feed that either?"
Administration officials also resisted any reference that the terrorist attackers included the Islamist extremist group Ansar al-Sharia, which is closely affiliated with al-Qaida. A chief political claim in Obama's re-election campaign at the time was that al-Qaida had been "decimated," while the deadly attack on our U.S. consulate suggested otherwise.
"Why do we want (Capitol) Hill to be fingering Ansar al-Sharia, when we aren't doing that ourselves," Nuland wrote. The reference to Ansar al-Sharia was dropped.
The more recent scandal over the Justice Department's unprecedented secret seizure of The Associated Press' phone records strikes at the heart of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution's First Amendment promise to protect the freedom of the press.
In this case, the White House was directly involved in the administration's efforts to hold up or delay publication of an AP exclusive about a foiled al-Qaida plot to blow up a U.S. passenger jet.
Attorney General Eric Holder, who personally signed off on the decision to examine the phone records of the AP's reporters and editors, said the story's release endangered the nation's security. But emerging details suggest that is not even remotely true.
During a series of meetings between AP editors and the government about plans to release the story, the CIA tried to hold up or delay it. At a meeting on May 7, 2012, "CIA officials reported that national security concerns were 'no longer an issue,'" The Washington Post reported Thursday.
Nevertheless, the White House, looking for any political advantage it could in the midst of Obama's campaign, said it wanted to put out its own version first, and offered to let the AP release its story a few minutes before the White House announcement. AP flatly rejected the offer and published its exclusive.
Holder's claim this week that the AP's disclosure "put the American people at risk" has absolutely zero credibility. The day after the AP ran with its story, John O. Brennan, then the White House's counterterrorism adviser, went on TV to say the plot posed no active threat to the American public.
The administration's seizure of the AP's private phone records to find out who its sources were was a petulant act of revenge for not getting its way -- and a chilling warning to the Washington news media not to dig too deeply into the administration's activities, or else.
It's clear the West Wing is at the center of this scandal that may well be headed to the courts. Only tyrants think they can thumb their nose at the Constitution and ride roughshod over a free press.
The Nixonian use of the Internal Revenue Service to punish and persecute Obama's political opponents may be the worst of these abuses because it strikes at the heart of our democratic political system.
These scandals will define Barack Obama's presidency throughout his second term. Hearings are lined up as far as the eye can see, and if there is any justice left in this government, the perpetrators will be "put in jail," as House Speaker John Boehner suggested the other day.
The big questions of who is to blame and how far up the chain of command the blame lies remain to be answered.
The president denies all responsibility in any of this, but Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, says "the president bears responsibility for what his government officials can and should do."
As Romero says, "The tone is set at the top." It's time to come clean, Mr. President.
COPYRIGHT 2013 UNITED FEATURE SYNDICATE