The late columnist William Safire once said that a good clue that someone in Washington was engaged in “an artful dodge,” i.e., a cover-up, was that they used the phrase “mistakes were made.” Safire defined it as a “passive-evasive way of acknowledging error while distancing the speaker from responsibility for it.”
The phrase became infamous when both Richard Nixon and Ron Ziegler, his press secretary, deployed it to explain away Watergate without explaining who did what and when or whether any ill motive was involved.
Astonishingly, the Internal Revenue Service resurrected the Nixonian expression within hours of its clumsy revelation that it had targeted tea-party groups and other organizations with “patriot” or “9/12” in their names. “Mistakes were made initially,” the official IRS statement on May 10 read, implying that the mistakes ended after a short “initial” period. We now know that the scandal and cover-up unfolded over a three-year period, and the IRS publicly acknowledged them only after the 2012 election was safely past.
Here are some other clues that a Washington cover-up is going on.
1. No one seems to be able to name the players. Last week, former acting IRS commissioner Steven Miller claimed he had identified “rogue” employees at the IRS’s Cincinnati office who were at the center of the scandal. But an IRS staffer at the Cincinnati office at the center of the scandal told the Washington Post this week: “Everything comes from the top. We don’t have any authority to make those decisions without someone signing off on them. There has to be a directive.”
Perhaps that’s why on Friday, Miller had this exchange during his House testimony with Representative Kevin Brady (R., Texas) .
Brady: “Who is responsible for targeting these individuals?”
Miller: “I don’t have names for you.”
Later, Representative Dave Reichert (R., Wash.) confronted Miller: “I’m disappointed. I’m hearing, ‘I don’t know. I don’t remember. I don’t recall. I don’t believe. Who knew?’ You don’t even know who investigated the case, but yet you say it was investigated. . . . You’re not instilling a lot of confidence.” Reichert pressed on, asking whom senior technical adviser Nancy Marks had identified as responsible for the targeting policy. Miller repeated his mantra of the day: “I don’t remember.”
One possible reason for the failure to reveal names is that it takes time for all the players to get their stories straight.
2. Spinners minimize the scandal by claiming it would have been impossible to detect it. David Axelrod, President Obama’s strategist in the 2012 election, perfected this ploy last week when he told MSNBC that the scandal was caused by “bureaucrats deep in the bowels of the IRS.” He went on to offer this civics lesson: “Part of being president is there’s so much underneath you because the government is so vast. You go through these [controversies] all because of this stuff that is impossible to know if you’re the president or working in the White House, and yet you’re responsible for it, and it’s a difficult situation.”
Apparently, mistakes can’t even be known.
3. Critics are discredited. In July 2012, months after he was made aware of the targeting scandal, Miller testified before a House committee and dismissed the complaints about the IRS’s targeting and intrusive questioning as mere “noise.” He said many of the groups applying for tax-exempt status “are very small organizations, and they are not quite sure what the rules are.” In other words, any groups that complained were just too dumb to understand the law. In reality, it was the IRS that was making up the rules as it went along.
Even many Democrats in Congress are tired of all these evasions. Having been misled by the Obama administration for so long on the IRS scandal, they aren’t likely to go out on a limb defending the cover-up.
Representative Joe Crowley of New York, one of top-ranking Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee, is calling for IRS official Lois Lerner to resign. Crowley told MSNBC that Lerner “failed to answer the question” when he asked her at a Ways and Means hearing on May 8 of this year whether the IRS was investigating groups that had applied for tax-exempt status. “She then two days later planted a question at a press event, only to then use that opportunity to apologize for what the IRS had been doing,” Crowley said. He added that when he later confronted her about the contradiction, she denied she’d even been asked about the political targeting at the hearing.
Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill is going further. A former state auditor, she has had years of experience with dissembling bureaucrats and errant officials. Last Friday, she issued a video statement calling for a full house-cleaning of everyone involved in the scandal: “We should not only fire the head of the IRS, which has occurred, but we’ve got to go down the line and find every single person who had anything to do with this and make sure that they are removed from the IRS and the word goes out that this unacceptable.”
Good luck with that. Washington’s political culture is completely resistant to such accountability. Recall that no one was fired in the wake of mistakes that led to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. We wouldn’t even know the names of many of those who made the mistakes without the work of an independent commission that investigated the attacks, a commission the Bush administration resisted forming.
In Washington, failure is rarely punished, and at times it’s even rewarded. Sarah Hall Ingram served as commissioner of the office in charge of tax-exempt organizations from 2009 to 2012. She collected over $100,000 in bonuses as she oversaw the IRS at the time it was targeting White House opponents; she has since been promoted to be director of the IRS’s Obamacare office.
Yes, the old Washington adage that the cover-up is worse than the crime is true. But as far as the American people are concerned, the general failure to hold government employees accountable for the IRS scandal — and in some cases the refusal even to identify them — is the ultimate insult added to injury.
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.