We should all be in line to take a whack at the idiots responsible for these completely avoidable exercises in governmental overreach and hubris. All together now: what the hell were they thinking? I can’t decide which is more disturbing: the government using its power to harass and tacitly threaten law-abiding citizens based on a perception of their political views, or the government using its power to harass and tacitly threaten journalists in the pursuit of their constitutionally-recognized role as government watchdog. Both are abuses of government power that fly in the face of what this country is meant to stand for.
Today the attorney general ordered the FBI to investigate the Internal Revenue Service for apparently singling out for enhanced scrutiny the applications for tax-exempt status from what were perceived to be conservative political groups. Yep, it looks like the party in power has been using the authority of the taxman to reward those with whom it agrees and punish those with whom it does not. Is there any more textbook definition of abuse of power than that?
I’m not saying that the IRS shouldn’t be thorough in reviewing applications for tax-exempt status; the IRS should be exceedingly thorough in investigating such requests. Wouldn’t we all be willing to believe there are those among us who would do whatever they could to reduce their tax bills, even lie about the true purpose of their organization? There are entire political movements built on the effort to reduce taxes, but that doesn’t mean they deserve extra scrutiny. Whatever’s determined to be the proper amount of review for gaining tax-exempt status should the bar for everyone to pass, and it’s just flat wrong for an arm of the government to single out persons or groups for extra scrutiny based on their actual or perceived political views, including their views about taxes! (Is this a great country or what?) The whole idea has conjured up in my imagination that happy visage of Richard Nixon and enemies lists.
It’s just as wrong, and just as dangerous to our liberty, for the Justice Department to seize phone records of journalists. The DOJ notified The Associated Press last week that at some point earlier this year, and clearly without prior notice, it had seized records for 20 phone lines belonging to AP offices and journalists, including home phones and cell phones. It did not state a reason why these records were seized; it’s believed to be in relation to an investigation into leaks about how the CIA disrupted a terrorist plot to bomb an airliner.
Our system envisions a strong press as a watchdog on government at all levels, acting as a representative of the people seeking out information that the government wants kept quiet…the stuff that the politicians and the bureaucrats don’t want you to know, that they’ve kept from you out of embarrassment or guilt. There have been people in the government from the beginning who understood the importance of that role to the overall functioning of society, and who’ve provided sensitive information to reporters despite being told not to do so. Today we call those people whistleblowers. When that whistle gets blown the government’s first response is often to decide who will take the blame, and they devote a terrific amount of energy to learning who told the truth. In some cases they ask a court to order the journalists who ran the story to tell where they got their information; in others, like this one, they just take private information without the knowledge of its owner in the hopes that they’ll be able to deduce who ratted them out.
We used to talk about the “chilling effect” that a variety of government actions would have on the newsgathering process, on the minds of the reporters who might think twice—or more than that—about pursuing a story when faced with the possibility, or the likelihood, that the government was going to fight back. And this is that.
It’s inconceivable to me that all the people involved in these two growing scandals are merely misunderstood or made poor decisions about how to achieve a legitimate objective, but I don’t think the blame goes all the way to the top. This president is neither that paranoid nor that stupid…although you’d think that a professor of constitutional law might have impressed on his subordinates some of his relevant thoughts about the proper use of governmental power. If this news had come out while the last man was president, I would have accepted it as prima facie evidence of the evilness of his administration and its soulless pursuit of instituting theocratic capitalism as our new form of government. I would have been wrong, but I admit I would have thought it.
When the government spies on reporters and appears to punish political enemies, it gives the tin foil hat crowd encouragement: “The government is spying on you—it’s keeping track of who you call and who calls you, it’s watching what you do and where you go and who you meet, it’s keeping information on your income and your taxes and your friends and who you associate with, and it’s using that information against you.” Today that sounds a little less ridiculous that it did last week.
Unassigned additional reading:
- How the IRS just handed the Tea Party its biggest victory yet, Dave Weigel/Slate
- What journalists need to know about the Justice Department’s seizure of AP phone records, Andrew Beaujon/Poynter,org