Crippling Scandals? Maybe Not

In my former life as a government teacher, I told my kids that if they took anything away from my course, I hoped it would be to do their own research and seek the truth about political issues, rather than just blindly accepting what the media and their crazy uncle’s mass emails told them.  For every rule in politics, there are ways to circumnavigate and bend the rules.  And political issues are almost never as simple as the media makes them sound.

Take the three biggest “scandals” that are currently circulating the news networks and blogosphere: the Benghazi controversy, the IRS revelation that it targeted conservative and Tea Party groups when applying for tax-exempt status, and the alleged spying on Associated Press reporters by the Obama Administration.  Let’s take a look at these stories and see if maybe there’s more to them than meets the eye.

First, Benghazi.  On September 11, 2012, the American diplomatic mission in the Libyan city was attacked by an armed group.  President Obama immediately addressed the nation, and ordered security to be increased at all diplomatic missions worldwide.  Initially, the administration reported that the attacks grew out of a protest over the web video Innocence of Muslims, which had offended many Muslims in the area.  UN Ambassador Susan Rice then appeared on several Sunday talk shows later that week, and confirmed the same story, saying that the administration had “no reason to believe the attack was premeditated or preplanned.”

Susan Rice
Susan Rice

However, a State Department investigation later revealed that the attack had been made by terrorists affiliated with Al-Qaeda.  Republicans criticism centered around the Obama administration’s failure to immediately label the attack as a terrorist attack.  They accused Obama, Rice, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of intentionally misleading the country about the nature of the attack, saying that they knew early on that the attack was a terrorist attack, and withheld the information.  Republicans’ case was bolstered by the acquisition of 12 different revisions of Rice’s talking points for the Sunday shows, some of which referred to the attack as an Al-Qaeda terrorist attack.

Let’s step back and think about this for a second.  Republicans were not criticizing the security at the mission.  They were not saying that their failure to act caused the American deaths, or that the incident was preventable.  They were criticizing the administration for mislabeling the attack.  Never mind that Obama’s address the day of the attack referred to it as an “act of terror,” this was the worst cover-up in history.


I agree with Secretary Clinton’s statements in this video.  Even if the administration deliberately didn’t say the attack was a terrorist attack, does it really matter?  The reality is, four Americans are dead.  It matters less why it happened; the important thing is that we find whoever did it and bring them to justice.  Rice’s TV appearances happened five days after the attack.  Of course the situation would still be fluid, and the government still unsure of exactly what happened, hence the revisions.  I think this proves that Republicans will do anything to make the administration look bad, even manufacturing a controversy where there is little or none.


Now, I will admit, the second controversy looks worse on the surface.  The IRS revealed that they had singled out conservative groups, most of them affiliated with the Tea Party movement, for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status as 501(c)(4) organizations.  They even approved a sudden flurry of these applications after Congress became suspicious that they might be targeting these groups.  A government agency using its power to hinder its political opponents.  Disgusting, right?

Well, there’s more to this story too.  Here’s the catch.  These groups didn’t have to apply for tax exempt status.  By law, 501(c)(4) organizations are exempt from this requirement.  They can apply if they wish, but are tax-exempt regardless of if they do or not.

IRS table

So it makes sense that IRS officials would be a little suspicious and maybe look at these applications a little closer when they arrived.  Why would these groups apply for this status if they didn’t have to?  They might not have known that they didn’t have to, or were doubling down just to make sure they qualified, but it’s still odd.  Lost in the shuffle also is the fact that some liberal groups received IRS inquiries as well.  Granted, there weren’t as many liberal groups on the list, but that does even out the story a little bit.  One liberal group even had its application denied, which did not happen to any of the conservative groups.

Now, I don’t think this absolves the IRS, but it does cast the whole affair in a different light.  It seems more like a case of bureaucratic inefficiency than partisanship.  And one question still remains in my mind: If this is all true, then why didn’t the IRS frame this differently?  Their admission seems pretty clear-cut: they targeted conservative groups and delayed their applications.  Why didn’t they give this additional information?  It might not have made them look good, but certainly would have made them look less bad than the news reports made it seem.


The third of these scandals may give us a reason to be angry, however.  On May 13, it came to light that the Department of Justice had seized phone records for 20 Associated Press reporters and editors.  The Department was investigating a story that leaked on May 7, 2012 that disclosed a classified CIA operation that foiled an Al-Qaeda attempt to blow up a plane headed for the United States.

When reporters leak stories such as this, the typical government response is to subpoena the reporters themselves for their sources.  This is not without precedent; former New York Times writer Judith Miller, for example, was jailed for contempt of court for failing to testify before a grand jury investigating the leak of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity.  But that step was bypassed in this case.  Attorney General Eric Holder explained why the DOJ did not take this step, “I know Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo [the two AP reporters who wrote the original stories], and they would rather sit in jail [rather than reveal their sources], as would a lot of really good reporters.”  So essentially, Holder did not think a subpoena would’ve been effective, so he took the next step.

Eric Holder
Eric Holder

But here’s the rub.  The DOJ didn’t notify the AP that they were requesting this information, they just went straight to Verizon and asked for the records, which they complied with.  I would’ve been okay with it if they had first subpoenaed the reporters, or talked to the AP before they obtained the phone records.  The fact that they didn’t do either gives the entire operation a Big Brother-ish character to it, and I think it constitutes overreach on the part of the Obama Administration.  Especially since they obtained the phone records of 20 different reporters, not just the original authors of the controversial article.  President Obama didn’t order it (as far as we know), so I don’t know exactly how much blame he should take for it.  But Holder needs to be held accountable for this, because it should not have happened.

So, in looking at each of these scandals, the stories are more complex than they appear on the surface.  Benghazi is really a manufactured scandal, with Republicans hoping that the public will put more importance on it than deserved.  The IRS scandal looks bad on the surface, but probably isn’t as bad as we think, once we delve into it.  But the AP scandal is a black mark on the administration.  Is it the worst scandal since Watergate, as some have claimed?  Probably not, as there’s no evidence President Obama was involved.   But it will certainly be remembered as one of the lowlights of his presidency.


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