Obama’s bad week a cornucopia for his critics

By Jayson Jacoby May 17, 2013 09:29 am

President Obama has had better weeks than this one.

Pretty much every week, actually, including many when he didn’t even win an election, sign a healthcare reform law, or have Osama bin Laden killed.

First, the White House press corps has roused from its months-long slumber about last year’s terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, reporters having detected the scent of scandal much as sharks recognize a splash of blood in the sea.

Second, with the revelation that the IRS has been acting the way the IRS acts in movies and novels but hardly anywhere else, the Justice Department is looking into whether tax bureaucrats’ targeting of tea party groups was illegal as well as politically idiotic.

Even by the lofty standards of the presidency, where public relations crises arrive with metronomic regularity, the two preceding blunders would constitute an especially troublesome period.

Except the president has a third debacle to deal with, and in one sense it’s the most rancid of the trio.

According to The Associated Press, the Justice Department seized records from phones used by AP reporters both in their offices and, in some cases, their homes, as part of an effort to figure out who leaked information about a CIA operation that thwarted a terrorist plot to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner in 2012.

(Which might explain why the federal cops weren’t paying closer attention to what the IRS was up to — they were too busy grabbing journalists’ phone bills. This is not what you’d call a good excuse. Unless your name is Jay Carney.)

The Nixonian overtones here are as blatant as a KISS concert.

Although I wonder whether even Nixon’s paranoia, immense as it was, would have persuaded him to go after phone records from the world’s largest newsgathering outfit.

Seizing the AP records is a whole lot more brazen, after all — not to mention it was officially sanctioned — than a bunch of bumbling burglars rifling through desk drawers in the Watergate Hotel.

And if all this wasn’t a rich enough gift to Obama’s critics, for whom this week was like having Santa’s sleigh (or anyway a Costco) crash land in your back yard, it turns out that Justice Department officials didn’t even tell the AP they were taking the phone records.

Pilfering the news media’s private data is rare anyway, as you’d expect in a country where the press’ freedom from government interference is so cherished the founders wrote it down first. But when the feds subpoena media records, the normal protocol is that the government negotiates with the news outlet in advance.

In this case the feds didn’t even bother with such courtesies.

It strikes me as passing strange that the Obama administration, and some of its acolytes in Congress, condemned the IRS overreach but so far have defended the secret seizure of AP phone records.

I hope those who are castigating the administration over the IRS — as well they should — will muster an equivalent outrage for the AP mess.

I understand the political allure of the IRS story.

It’s almost a caricature of the scenario in which faceless bureaucrats employ the power of the federal government to pursue nefarious partisan plots.

Yet as heinous as the IRS’s actions were, it’s not as if the agency sent SWAT teams of auditors, armed with fully automatic adding machines, into the homes of everyone who put a Romney campaign sign in the front yard last year.

The issue here was whether groups ostensibly associated with the tea party qualified for tax-exempt status. It’s not clear that many organizations were unfairly denied that status as a result of the IRS’ indefensible zealotry. In other words, the effect, if any, was largely political rather than financial.

(Whether the IRS, with little more than a wink and a nod, granted tax breaks for other organizations, ones which hadn’t the audacity to use suspicious words such as “patriot” in their names, is another matter, and one that should be pursued.)

Yet with regard to the phone records scandal, which seems to me more deserving of the term “unAmerican” than anything Joe McCarthy ever poked his nose into, Attorney General Eric Holder reacted with an obstinacy reminiscent of the late senator from Wisconsin.

Holder, and staunch supporters such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., insist that the details AP reported in its 2012 story resulted from “a very serious leak, a very grave leak” (Holder) and was “within the most serious leaks because it definitely endangered some lives” (Feinstein).

(At least they’re somewhat consistent — both Feinstein and Holder think Wikileaks founder Julian Assange should be prosecuted.)

This is precisely the sort of excuse that is typically associated with, if not attributed to, Republicans in general, and the George W. Bush administration in particular (and to be fair, on occasion this was justified).

If nothing else, journalists who cover the White House no longer have any excuse for failing to understand that nothing is more bipartisan than the abuse of government power.

Jayson Jacoby is editor 
of the Baker City Herald.