All Politics All the Time — 13 May 2013

There are two disconcerting threads that connect the two hot stories in the news this week, the renewed (I would say, disgracefully belated) interest in the Benghazi terrorist attacks of last September 11, and the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups for heightened scrutiny.

The first thread has to do with politics.  Both of these incidents happened during the run-up to the 2012 re-election of Barack Obama.  Both of them featured decisions made by administration officials that violated their duties to serve the American people with honesty and integrity.  And the actions in both cases helped Obama get re-elected.

In the case of the Benghazi attacks, the outlines of the story have long been available, but last week’s testimony by career diplomat Greg Hicks made it clear: the White House and the Secretary of State knew within hours that the attack on the consulate in Benghazi was an organized terrorist attack.  Despite this, the administration for weeks stuck to the story that the cause of the attack was mob anger at an anti-Muslim video that had been posted on-line.

The recent slow emergence of emails has shown that, contrary to administration statements at the time, the faulty explanation of the event was not the best information that the intelligence community had.  In fact, it was administration political and PR types, such as State’s Victoria Nuland, who insisted on watering down the report to remove any reference to al Qaeda-linked groups.

Not only that, but Hicks’ story revealed an administration keen to prevent inquiry into the incident: when Congressman Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah, went to Benghazi to investigate, Hicks was told by no less than Hillary Clinton’s right-hand aide, Cheryl Mills, not to meet with him.  And for other visitors from the FBI, to ensure that a State Department lawyer was present in all meetings.  When the lawyer was kept out of one meeting because he lacked security clearance, Hicks got a nuclear sunburn from Washington and was ultimately demoted from Deputy Chief of Mission to a desk job.

The politics of this were pretty obvious: President Obama was getting a lot of political mileage out of the claim that with Osama bin Laden dead al Qaeda was on the run, a spent force in the war on terror.  If Islamic terrorists can be so brazen as to stage a full-on attack on a US outpost, and kill the ambassador and three other Americans, that story line is fatally compromised and Obama’s campaign suffers.  Better to suppress the truth to the American people.

We don’t yet know all the facts around the IRS case, which just broke last week.  But the outlines again are clear: groups seeking tax-exempt status were singled out for intense scrutiny of their fundraising and other activities if they had certain tell-tale keywords in their names: Tea Party, Patriot, Constitutional, or Bill of Rights.  In other words, they were being targeted because of their political views.

This scrutiny is not simply a matter of filling out more forms.  The IRS has been known to ask these groups for tens of thousands of emails to be printed out and delivered, for detailed financial records, and even lists of donors’ names.  Quite apart from the cost and burden of complying with these demands – which takes time and energy away from the groups’ intended tasks – is the chilling effect on the group’s activities.  The IRS is as powerful an agency as the government has, and when they come calling one tends to shiver just a bit.

The unconstitutionality of this is not questioned by any commentator of left or right.  Which raises the question: who thought this was a good idea?  We are far from knowing how high this went, although latest indications are that it went all the way to Washington, but we do know that it is not inconsistent with the White House’s tactics.  A report I referred to some months ago described how the web site of the White House itself named Romney contributors by name and publicly accused them of being “less than reputable,” “on the wrong side of the law,” and profiting “at the expense of the American people.”  With that as background, who could fault an IRS functionary who thought a little harassment of conservative groups would be smiled upon from above?

The second thread that ties these events together is, to put it delicately, a rather casual acquaintance with the truth.  The aftermath of Benghazi is all about fabrication and misdirection, but a couple of points still bear mention.

First, President Obama has said repeatedly that he called the Benghazi attack terrorism the very next day; he blindsided Romney with that claim at the second debate (with Candy Crowley’s connivance), and he repeated it again today.  But I invite you to examine his Rose Garden remarks from Sept 12, here.  This is what he said specifically about the Benghazi attack: “Since our founding, the United States has been a nation that respects all faiths.  We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.  But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence.  None.”  He was associating the attacks with “denigration” of Islam, i.e., the video.  He does go on to mention terrorism, but only after making reference to the 9-11 attacks of 2001.  He does not mention Benghazi and terrorism in the same breath.  It’s a lie.

Further, Susan Rice, in the famous series of Sunday talk shows, not only perpetrated the video/mob fiction, but said there was “no evidence” that there was an organized attack by  Islamic extremists.  In fact, there was no evidence that it was anything but an organized attack by Islamic extremists.  That statement was simply untrue, and if she gleaned that from the heavily scrubbed talking points, then there is much more investigation to be done.

It also galls that Administration figures are trying to duck probing questions as if this is all old news.  Jay Carney, at the outset of last week’s hearings, tried the gambit that Benghazi “happened a long time ago,” as if there were some sort of statute of limitations on the murder of our ambassador by foreign terrorists.  Similarly, Hillary’s famous “what difference at this point does it make?” suggested that we don’t really need to know what happened, since we’ve been talking about it for such a long time.

Wrong and wrong.  This matters because the Administration lied to the American people for political reasons, and we still don’t know the whole truth.

Again, parallels with the IRS case.  While the fact of the scrutiny of conservative groups was known at supervisory levels of the IRS back in 2011, the Commissioner of the IRS was assuring Congress months afterward that there was no such targeting going on.

This story is new enough that it doesn’t have the barnacles of factoids that have hung on the Benghazi story after all these months.  But it would be surprising indeed to find that the denials of abuse of IRS power that have followed complaints from Glenn Beck and other conservative activists were not in fact knowing falsehoods a good bit of the time.

The American people deserve better than this.  They deserve an Administration that sets a tone of service and integrity, not one where politics colors every decision.  They deserve an Administration that levels with them about what is going on in the world and in their back yards.  And when there is a screw-up to acknowledge it, not to smother it in carefully crafted talking points.

Obama is rapidly losing whatever credibility he had left.  And for one who has built his political persona on effortlessly persuasive  communications, that is a big loss indeed.

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