What does the scandal cascade teach us about trust in government power?
posted at 3:21 pm on May 14, 2013 by Ed Morrissey
Let’s step back a bit and take a longer view of the scandals erupting in Washington over the past week. We have a hat trick of them emerging and growing, from the attempt to paper over the al-Qaeda connection to the Benghazi consulate attack, the IRS targeting and harassment of conservative groups for a three-year period, and a raid on the phone records of more than 100 reporters working for the Associated Press. Matt Lewis writes today that the three could converge into a powerful narrative of Barack Obama as Richard Nixon redux, or perhaps worse:
When political opponents are targeted, and when the press (the very people who ought to bravely call the administration out for it) feel threatened, themselves, they are less likely to hold the politicians accountable. The same rule applies to whistleblowers who might tell the press information that could embarrass the Administration. So how do you expect the press — and the whistleblowers — to feel after it was revealed that the Obama Administration had seized phone records of Associated Press reporters?
Nobody is saying this rises to the level of an authoritarian regime. But freedom requires eternal vigilance, so we should have zero tolerance for this behavior. We’re treading on very dangerous territory here. If oppressing your enemies and silencing your critics doesn’t constitute tyranny, I don’t know what does.
In my column today for The Week, I point out that the media would normally insert itself into these scandals to run interference for the White House and proclaim it all just a “partisan exercise,” as many painted the Benghazi hearing last week. The raid on the AP might have cut Obama off from his media apologists for good — or at least some of them:
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 APcan’t bury the records of the phone companies involved, even if it was 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 newsgathering activity.” What source will trust that their identity will remain anonymous if the government can seize the phone records without warning? TheACLU 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 a at least as great an injury to accountability and representative democracy. Perhaps now that the media has also become a target for the administration, they might start taking these injuries a little more seriously.
Even Andrea Mitchell is outraged, at least for now, as AP linked earlier:
Will that outrage last? Perhaps not at MSNBC, but the apologists may soon end up the small minority among the mainstream media after the assault on the AP. It’s about five years too late, but at least we may finally see more attempts at accountability from the media in regard to the Obama administration.
So what lessons should we learn from this trilogy of abuses and cover-ups, as well as from Operation Fast and Furious and earlier scandals that the media mostly ignored? Glenn Reynolds writes today that trusting in government power is the big mistake:
The rest of the week consisted of scandal after scandal, suggesting that maybe our government is . . . a sham with which Obama, at least, can’t be trusted. …
A cynic might conclude that these scandals are of a piece. The IRS harassment, focused at an IRS office in the key swing state of Ohio, crippled Tea Party groups during the 2012 election cycle. The blame-the-video spin, meanwhile, obscured the administration’s, and the State Department’s, culpability in terms of poor security and inept intelligence, while protecting Obama’s triumphalist Osama-bin-Laden-is-dead-and-al-Qaeda-is-on-the-ropes election-season line on the war on terror.
Politics over principle — and public safety. That’s what a cynic would conclude is going on here. And you know, these days the cynics are often right.
It’s a lesson we apparently need to learn over and over again.
Update: Chris Cillizza hits a bullseye in a story more focused on Obama’s “terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad” week, emphasis mine:
There’s simply no escaping the fact that the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups (without any similar flagging of liberal groups) happened on President Obama’s watch. That he learned of the scandal from news reports on Friday despite the fact that senior officials at the IRS were aware of it as far back as 2011 makes it worse, not better as it relates to Obama’s pledge to restore competence across all aspects of the government.
Then there is the AP phone records story. While the Justice Department will defend their actions as necessary to ensure leaks don’t endanger national security and American lives — the phone records they obtained were tied to a failed terrorist attack last year — the idea of an arm of government secretly grabbing phone records from reporters is, literally, the opposite of transparency.
The cumulative weight of the series of stories, of course, is, potentially, the most dangerous thing of all for the Obama Administration. Group Benghazi, the IRS and the AP into a single narrative and it reads something like this: The government knows better than you. As a result, the government can do whatever it likes.
And has, at least until the media became one of its targets. This may fundamentally change that equation — or at least, it should.