The week just ended may have been the worst week experienced by the Obama administration, and there are over 220 to choose from. The congressional testimony by three whistle-blowers on the widening Benghazi scandal drew attention even from the mainstream media outlets, which had chosen to bury the story for months. The president's press secretary, Jay Carney, in a performance worthy of a short career in this capacity, managed to double down on the falsehoods, continuing to avoid admitting even the obvious. For starters, Carney maintained that the talking points distributed to U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice for use in her appearances on the major news networks a few days after the attack in Benghazi on September 11 reflected what was known about the attacks, as opposed to the story the administration wanted to get out there (a spontaneous demonstration in reaction to an anti-Muslim video), and that the changes in the talking points in the days prior to Rice's appearances were merely stylistic, rather than substantive.
It is understandable that with less than two months to go in the presidential campaign, and the president ahead in the polls, and holding favorable ratings on his management of foreign affairs, there was pressure from the political types, who seem to be central to every decision by the administration, to defend the Obama foreign policy narrative even if a totally invented script on Benghazi needed to be written to do this. The narrative that needed defending, in reality, more mythology than substance, argued that al-Qaida had effectively been destroyed with the death of bin Laden, and that our Libyan intervention had been a great success.
Then on Friday, an arguably bigger story blew up on the administration. The Treasury Department's inspector-general for tax administration is expected to level serious charges next week of an attempt by Internal Revenue Service officials to target conservative groups seeking to obtain tax-exempt status under the code. The administration, as is its habit, released the news of the problematic behavior by agents in the Cincinnati office of the IRS on Friday afternoon, assuming the story would get overshadowed by the continuing Benghazi controversy, with which it would have to compete. The release of the news included suggestions that the singling out of the Tea Party and other conservative groups, was the work of lower level employees, in a branch office, and of course was unknown to departmental superiors or other higher up officials (e.g., the White House). These intimations have already proven false. Certain IRS officials were either in the dark about the operation or lied under oath to Congress in 2012 when asked about the program by members of Congress who had been informed about the behavior of the IRS by groups trying to gain the tax exemption. Incredibly, spotting words such as "constitution," "Bill of Rights," and "patriot" in the name or mission of groups, were red flags for the IRS agents. The IRS agents also asked for donor lists, which is both illegal and chilling for potential donors. And the supposedly rogue "way down the totem pole" agents in Cincinnati were anything but; that office is the central processing office for the IRS to consider applications for tax exempt status, so it represents ground zero for this activity.
One can easily make a case that the current law is too lax, and organizations that achieve tax-free status are more interested in political advocacy than in charitable purposes, such as education and communication on issues. If this is one's view, however, then enforcement of the law should presumably be applied consistently, across the board, to organizations and groups that may have crossed the line, regardless of their message. Groups that are really conducting politics and only pretending to have a charitable purpose would be identified from both the Left and the Right. This, of course, is not what happened here. The only groups that were identified by their mission or name, were on the Right, in other words, perceived political opponents of the Obama administration.
There is much evidence that Americans are not well versed in their history, including relatively recent history. Going back fewer than 40 years, the first impeachment article drawn up in the U.S. House of Representatives for President Richard Nixon in 1974 described his abuse of presidential authority by using the IRS to target political opponents. Is the offense of less significance now because the Democratic Party is in power, and it stuck the IRS on Republicans and conservatives? So far, the connection between the banana republic activity of the IRS agents and the White House has not been made. But this controversy is in its first weekend. So far, there has been no testimony under oath by anyone before a congressional committee. And more importantly, the misconduct is so serious that even the administration's most ardent defenders are not spinning that nothing bad happened here. Even Jay Carney admitted this was wrong, and that may be a first for him.
The president, who loves to be in the public view at all times, so long as the audience is friendly (worshipful is preferred), was little seen this week except for an appearance before a carefully selected group of cheering women to promote the increasingly troubled rollout of his health care reform bill, popularly known as Obamacare. That legislation will result in significant financial costs and prove politically embarrassing to the administration if healthy younger people do not enroll in large numbers. There was not a word from the president about Benghazi or the IRS controversy. Instead, Jay Carney was served up as the piñata for a suddenly aggressive White House press corps, which for over four years seemed to see its role as mainly to provide political cover for the administration.
The IRS story will get much bigger this week. The pro-Israel group Z Street, for which I serve as a board member, received a brushback from the IRS when it applied for tax-free status in 2010. The IRS agent who communicated with Z Street indicated that a special division of the IRS had been created to review applications for groups involved with Israel, and in particular was interested in its involvement with terrorism (!) There were also questions about the group's political positions, in particular how consistent they were with those of the administration. Until this weekend, no one had put together the IRS political harassment campaign against pro-Israel groups with the stories that had been circulating of roadblocks and challenges to the Tea Party and conservative groups.
The scrutiny of Z Street was not an isolated event for the IRS. Other Jewish groups, including groups not focused on Israel, were also targeted.
"And at least one purely religious Jewish organization, one not focused on Israel, was the recipient of bizarre and highly inappropriate questions about Israel. Those questions also came from the same non-profit division of the IRS at issue for inappropriately targeting politically conservative groups. The IRS required that Jewish organization to state "whether [it] supports the existence of the land of Israel," and also demanded the organization "describe [its] religious belief system toward the land of Israel."
The mainstream media disregarded Barack Obama's political history in Chicago, his work as a community organizer, his connections with radicals and Israel haters such as Bill Ayers, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Ali Abunimah and Rashid Khalidi, or his attachment to Saul Alinsky's methods and blueprint for political action. The president has so far largely kept his distance from the storm clouds gathering over his administration over Benghazi and the IRS. On Benghazi his fingerprints are clearer, since he personally provided misleading information (you can use a different word) about the attack in several talks and interviews in the two weeks after September 11, in every case blaming the anti-Muslim video maker for stirring up a mob to attack the consulate. He knew that was untrue, but kept saying it anyway. The bigger question will be this: Is it really possible that IRS agents simply chose to deal with conservative groups and Jewish groups in the way they did without any direction from above? And if there was direction from above, from how far up the chain of command was the direction given?