In each of the three major scandals that have recently rocked the Obama administration, the hunt is on for smoking guns. Armed with subpoena power in the House of Representatives, the GOP is going after the administration — for its secret seizures of journalists’ phone records, the IRS persecution of conservative nonprofit groups, and the Benghazi fiasco — and it smells blood.
Alas, the hunt may well prove fruitless; it may emerge that no laws were broken. But even if no laws were broken, the scandals’ common theme is a casual abuse of government power.
The pattern of abuse is an almost inevitable result of how the administration sees itself and its opponents. During a recent press conference, Attorney General Eric Holder was asked whether, in terms of civil liberties, the Obama administration was comparable to that of George W. Bush. “No, we’re not,” he said. “This administration has put a real value on the rule of law and our values as Americans.”
This childish answer betrays the combination of self-delusion and paranoia that pervades the administration. Its members believe that their side is morally infallible and the opposition morally degenerate. Their supposed monopoly on democratic virtue gives them carte blanche, and they have used it.
Take the case of the secret phone-record seizures. Reporters are bitter about the fact that this president, to whom they have been so very kind, has already prosecuted more leaks than all other presidents combined, and appears now to be turning against them. Besides the secret seizure of AP phone records in connection with the leak of a foiled al-Qaeda plot, there is the Department of Justice investigation of Fox News correspondent James Rosen for his 2009 revelation of a mole inside North Korea. In his case, the Department of Justice obtained a search warrant to gain access to his e-mails, and in order to justify the warrant it described him as, “at the very least, either . . . an aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator” under the Espionage Act. This is apparently the first time that the Espionage Act has been invoked against a reporter merely for publishing something. Republicans and Democrats alike warn that journalism itself is being criminalized.
Now, the unauthorized disclosure of classified information is a serious crime. It’s not obvious that journalists should be able hide those guilty of it behind the First Amendment, or that they should be able to abet such crimes with impunity. Although prosecuting reporters in these cases is almost certainly within the law, it is virtually never done because most Americans understand the vital role that a free press plays in a free society, particularly as a check on government power.
Meanwhile, the reason the administration has had to prosecute so many leaks is that it leaks so much. Indeed, the administration itself has leaked stories like the foiled al-Qaeda plot many times, to burnish the president’s national-security credentials, despite the fact that the information might compromise agents and vital operations. It is manifestly abusive for the administration to put national security at risk in order to make the president look good.
Within hours of the failed “Christmas bombing” attempt in 2009, the administration revealed that the terrorist had talked for less than an hour under interrogation, was sedated for a while, and then refused to talk, whereupon he was promptly read his Miranda rights. This leak was truly idiotic. It gave al-Qaeda crucial information about the scope of the interrogation, and also signaled that their man would not be subjected to coercive interrogation, which should have been the administration’s highest priority when it had captured a live al-Qaeda terrorist who had nearly killed hundreds of people.
With such leaks coming from the highest levels, the administration was soon a porous as a sieve. Now, in its new-found eagerness to prove that it can safeguard the nation’s secrets, it has moved with unprecedented aggressiveness against its old friends in the media. This is part and parcel of its worldview, in which it can do no wrong while exercising the dangerous power of government. That’s worrisome in its own right, because President Obama’s expansive approach to government power makes checks and balances, including the free press, more vital than ever.
The IRS persecution of conservative nonprofits shows the paranoid side of this worldview. In early 2010, conservative groups began forming and applying for tax-exempt status in significantly higher numbers. The IRS apparently reacted to the trend by grouping the cases together, as it has done in the past with similar trends. The law is problematically vague as to the kinds of political activity tax-exempt organizations are permitted to engage in, and the vagueness invites IRS scrutiny of communications and even such things as prayers. One additional factor made the abuse of power inevitable: The IRS’s Cleveland office, at least, appears to have been proceeding on the assumption that the new conservative groups had been formed for impermissible political purposes.