The White House is on the defensive as three stories are inundating political news: The Benghazi hearings, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) targeting conservative groups and the Department of Justice (DOJ) seizing two months of Associated Press (AP) reporters’ phone records.
Yesterday, the president and chief executive officer of the AP, Gary Pruitt, called the phone records seizure "unconstitutional" and said the news cooperative has not ruled out legal action against the DOJ. Senate Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell said the same day that the IRS controversy amounts to a “culture of intimidation.”
In a House Judiciary Committee hearing last Friday, Attorney General Eric Holder referred to Rep. Darrell Issa’s (R-CA) behavior as “shameful.” The day before, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pointed out that there was no outrage “when groups on the other side of the political spectrum were under attack.”
Pruitt, McConnell, Holder and Reid may have good points. Republicans, Democrats and Independents should be outraged if Americans abroad are not given adequate security, the IRS is being used to target political enemies and the DOJ is being used to stifle freedom of the press. It is only fair, however, that both parties are treated equally by lawmakers, government officials and the media – and that has not been the case.
The shameful behavior of lawmakers, government officials and the media in the recent “scandals” work both ways. Both lawmakers and the corporate media fail to acknowledge is that there is a double standard at work. The Obama administration is being chastised for the same things that were overlooked during the Bush administration yet refuses to take higher ethical ground by continuing to violate constitutional rights and continuing a disastrous foreign policy.
The events at Benghazi were horrific, but so were the events at the 13 diplomatic compounds that were attacked during the Bush administration. Here is a list of those:
- January 22, 2002. Calcutta, India. Gunmen associated with Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami attack the US Consulate. Five people are killed.
- June 14, 2002. Karachi, Pakistan. Suicide bomber connected with al-Qaida attacks the US Consulate, killing 12 and injuring 51.
- October 12, 2002. Denpasar, Indonesia. US diplomatic offices bombed as part of a string of “Bali Bombings.” No fatalities.
- February 28, 2003. Islamabad, Pakistan. Several gunmen fire upon the US Embassy. Two people are killed.
- May 12, 2003. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Armed al-Qaida terrorists storm the diplomatic compound killing 36 people including nine Americans. The assailants committed suicide by detonating a truck bomb.
- July 30, 2004. Tashkent, Uzbekistan. A suicide bomber from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan attacks the US Embassy, killing two people.
- December 6, 2004. Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Al-Qaida terrorists storm the US Consulate and occupy the perimeter wall. Nine people are killed.
- March 2, 2006. Karachi, Pakistan (again). Suicide bomber attacks the US Consulate killing four people, including US diplomat David Foy who was directly targeted by the attackers. (I wonder if Lindsey Graham or Fox News would even recognize the name “David Foy.” This is the third Karachi terrorist attack in four years on what’s considered American soil.)
- September 12, 2006. Damascus, Syria. Four armed gunmen shouting “Allahu akbar” storm the US Embassy using grenades, automatic weapons, a car bomb and a truck bomb. Four people are killed, 13 are wounded.
- January 12, 2007. Athens, Greece. Members of a Greek terrorist group called the Revolutionary Struggle fire a rocket-propelled grenade at the US Embassy. No fatalities.
- March 18, 2008. Sana’a, Yemen. Members of the al-Qaida-linked Islamic Jihad of Yemen fire a mortar at the US Embassy. The shot misses the embassy, but hits a nearby school, killing two.
- July 9, 2008. Istanbul, Turkey. Four armed terrorists attack the US Consulate. Six people are killed.
- September 17, 2008. Sana’a, Yemen (again). Terrorists dressed as military officials attack the US Embassy with an arsenal of weapons including RPGs and detonate two car bombs. Sixteen people are killed, including an American student and her husband, whom had been married for three weeks when the attack occurred.
Total killed: 60. Number of outraged Republicans: 0. Two of the attacks in Pakistan and Yemen were repeat attacks on the same facilities, yet there were no publicized demands for increased security and little or no improvements in security at either location.
The hypocrisy of lawmakers regarding Benghazi goes even further. While both the State Department and Pentagon budgets have increased yearly, in every year since 2010, Democrats requested more for embassy security, construction and maintenance than House Republicans approved. Some of the notable Republicans that voted against increased funding are the same ones that are blaming the Obama administration and the State department for the lack of security in Benghazi: Rep. Darrell Issa and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT).
Meanwhile former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is allegedly accountable for the failure of security in Benghazi, warned on Feb. 14, 2011:
I was very clear with the Speaker about the deep concerns we have with the FY11 spending bill moving through the House floor this week. The scope of the proposed House cuts is massive. The truth is that cuts of that level will be detrimental to America’s national security. …Otherwise we will pay a higher price later in crises that are allowed to simmer and boil over into conflicts.
Many argue that Benghazi is scandalous not only because of the lack of adequate security, but also because rescue teams could have reached the embassy in time but were ordered to stand down, because the American people were not immediately told that it was a pre-planned attack and because of a perceived administration effort to hide its mistakes.
Some have even gone as far as to theorize, based on an editorial penned by Admiral James A. Lyons in the Washington Times, that the Benghazi attack was a staged kidnapping gone awry, intended to be an “October surprise” by the Obama administration with hostages taken and then being freed. Lyons asserts that there were plenty of military assets available to stop the attack before the loss of American lives, which is odd considering that he was not asked to testify in either hearing.
There are four points to consider that have surfaced in the hearings on Benghazi.
Firstly, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other top Pentagon officials testified that the four-man special operations team referred to in the hearings, or any other ground forces, could not have made it to Benghazi in time to prevent the last two of the four deaths. Furthermore, the team had to be airlifted on a Libyan C-130 transport plane and the US government did not have immediate clearance from the Libyan government for that.
Secondly, the initial press releases that the attack was the result of a spontaneous demonstration rather than a pre-planned attack were based on the intelligence reports available at the time. Even though there were protests occurring at the time in several countries over a trailer for an anti-Muslim film, it was obvious to many at the time that the attack in Benghazi was not about a movie.
Thirdly, it is unclear why references to a terrorist attack were not subsequently made and the White House has yet to explain the ambiguity in their press releases, but that does not prove that the attack was preventable and the administration failed to do so. It also does not help the GOP’s case in proving that the Obama administration covered up terrorism when it was revealed that the emails were altered before being released to the press.
Lastly, but not least, the real issue that may be scandalous is being overlooked by both parties and the media. When US personnel were airlifted from Benghazi the night of the attack, there were seven Foreign Service and State Department officers and 23 CIA officers onboard. This fact alone indicates that the consulate was primarily diplomatic cover for an intelligence operation that was known to Libyan militia groups.
Among the questions that have not been probed is why the Benghazi mission, with its large CIA contingent, remained open when other Western countries, most notably Great Britain, had pulled out of Benghazi in the weeks preceding the attacks because of security concerns.
The use of US consulates by the CIA as operational bases without adequate security is practice common to both Republican and Democrat administrations. So is the pursuit of a foreign policy that led to the overthrow of the previous Libyan government that angered the militants and put US diplomats in a precarious position there. Perhaps lawmakers and the media should be questioning that.
IRS Targeting Conservative Groups
Within days after the latest round of Benghazi hearings, another “scandal” erupted when it was revealed that the IRS gave extra scrutiny to conservative groups claiming tax exempt status under 501(c)(4) of the IRS code and that some of their applications were delayed.
Organizations are allowed 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status if they can demonstrate to the IRS that they are primarily engaged in “social welfare” and not politics. That is, the group has to be “primarily engaged in promoting in some way the common good and general welfare of the community,” but they should not be primarily engaged in partisan politics or electioneering.
The difficult part for the IRS is how to make that distinction, especially considering that since the Citizens United ruling the number of applications for 501(c)(4) status doubled. Neither Congress nor the IRS has defined 501(c)(4)′s sufficiently, leaving the door open for IRS auditors to make up their own, discriminatory rules
IRS employees are given little or no guidance as to how to do that. The use of keywords in identifying individuals or groups for whatever reason is standard practice in all government agencies. Republican leaders, furthermore, admitted today that there is no evidence that the White House had anything to do with the targeting of conservative groups.
It is more likely that IRS employees chose to ask additional questions of groups that use the words “tea party,” “patriot” or “9/12” in their names not because of some political vendetta, but because they knew no other way to do so. Even considering, however, that many of the groups that were given extra scrutiny by the IRS are blatantly engaged in political activism, it is a form of profiling that should be frowned upon by all Americans.
The larger context of this “scandal,” however, goes beyond the specifics of keyword targeting, further questioning and delayed applications. Once again, lawmakers and media have turned the IRS “scandal” into a partisan issue when it is not. The IRS commissioner who resigned today was appointed under the Bush administration and the IRS engaged in the same practices targeting liberal groups such the NAACP, Greenpeace and even a liberal church before Obama was elected.
In 2004, the IRS went after the NAACP, auditing the nation’s oldest civil rights group after its then-chairman, Julian Bond, criticized President Bush for being the first sitting president since Herbert Hoover not to address the organization. “They [the IRS] are saying if you criticize the president we are going to take your tax exemption away from you,” Bond later remarked.
In 2006, a group funded by ExxonMobil called Public Interest Watch pressured the I.R.S. to audit the environmental advocacy group, Greenpeace, because it labeled Exxon-Mobil “the No. 1 climate criminal.” While the investigation was eventually closed, the IRS acknowledged it acted as a result of Public Interest Watch’s complaint.
The author of the Wall Street Journal article, Steve Stecklow, who reported that the IRS targeted Greenpeace on behalf of ExxonMobil, said in an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now:
This comes against a backdrop where a number of conservative groups have been attacking nonprofits and NGOs over their tax-exempt status. There have been hearings on Capitol Hill. Public Interest Watch was founded by a guy named Michael Hardiman who I interviewed, and he’s a Washington-based lobbyist. He’s a Republican….The records show he started to get a lot of money [in 2003], almost all of it from ExxonMobil.
Shortly before the 2004 election, the IRS audited a Pasadena, C.A. church called All Saints Episcopal and threatened to revoke its tax-exempt status because rector George Regas said from the dias, “Jesus [would say], ‘Mr. President, your doctrine of preemptive war is a failed doctrine.’”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) said on MSNBC last Monday:
I wish there was more GOP interest when I raised the same issue during the Bush administration, where they audited a progressive church in my district in what look liked a very selective way,…I’m glad now that the GOP has found interest in this issue and it ought to be a bipartisan concern.
Meanwhile, conservative churches across the country such as the World Harvest Church in Ohio, were mobilizing Republican voters with little or no scrutiny, even going as far as flying Kenneth Blackwell, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, to three political events on its plane.
In 2006, pastor Mac Hammond of the Living World Christian Center in Minnesota said before welcoming her to the church: “You know we can’t publicly endorse as a church and would not for any candidate, but I can tell you personally that I’m going to vote for Michele Bachmann.” While the IRS did open an audit of that church, it went nowhere due to a “technicality.”
Many of the aforementioned cases occurred before the Citizens United ruling and tax codes were much more well-defined under the 501(c)(3) rules at the time. There was little ambiguity in terms of enforcement under the C-3 rules, yet organizations were pursued nonetheless.
David Sirota, a columnist and best-selling author, points out in an article on Salon.com that the targeting of political enemies during the Bush administration went much further than IRS paperwork and audits: “We learned that along with the IRS, Secret Service and FBI, the Bush administration may have also been using the Central Intelligence Agency against its political enemies.”
While no organization on either side of the political spectrum should be unfairly scrutinized by the IRS, the outrage in congress and the media now, after the IRS was targeting liberal groups during the Bush administration, further suggests a double standard.
A few democratic lawmakers and news outlets took note of it publicly at the time, but it has in no way reached the level of intensity that it has last week. Many of the same lawmakers and media pundits that are screaming bloody murder about the IRS now were curiously silent when it was done ten years ago, which suggests that they are only outraged when government resources are aimed at their friends, but will look the other way when those resources are aimed at political enemies.
Has congress and the media reached a new heightened level of awareness, or do they just not care about the principles of equal protection under the law, impartial governance, and a nonpartisan approach of government agencies? A closer look at the AP phone-tapping scandal may reveal more.
DOJ Phone-tapping AP Reporters
The AP phone-tapping is also an example of a policy enacted under the Bush administration that has been continued under the Obama administration, yet was met with little or no outrage or opposition as it was being put into place – another double standard at work.
The DOJ informed the AP that it had secretly obtained telephone records for more than 20 separate phone numbers assigned to AP journalists and offices, both cell and home lines, including the AP’s main switchboard. While no explanation was given, it is likely that this was a result of the AP breaking stories last May about a foiled terror plot coming out of Yemen, involving plans to blow up an airliner bound for the United States.
Regardless of the rationale for the actions of the DOJ and US intelligence agencies, they are a clear violation of the freedom of the press rights guaranteed by the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Once again, however, these actions are not unprecedented and are part of a larger pattern. Similar phone-tapping and other surveillance by government agencies was largely ignored by politicians and the press before the Obama administration.
Over a decade ago, journalist Jesselyn Radack leaked e-mails to Newsweek regarding a cover-up by the DOJ of an ethics violation in its interrogation of “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh. The DOJ went after the journalist who published the e-mails, Michael Isikoff, obtaining phone records of the conversations without either of them knowing how.
The latest revelation about the government infringement on the AP confirms what too many whistleblowers…and journalists…already know about the national security state: when you speak truth to power, the government will use every weapon in its arsenal to silence you. I've been saying [that] for years - shouting into the wilderness…If the American media and public want to keep what's left of their First Amendment rights, we need to wake up and see this latest attack on free speech for what it is: the government is using the criminal justice system to silence dissenters - a policy completely antithetical to a constitutional democracy that enshrines the freedoms of speech and the press.
Radack’s experience is not unique. In 2004 FBI agents obtained the phone records of Washington Post staff writer Ellen Nakashima, “who was based in Jakarta, Indonesia, at the time,” the Post reported in 2008, after FBI director Robert Mueller apologized. The FBI also obtained telephone records of an Indonesian researcher in the paper’s Jakarta bureau, Natasha Tampubolon. According to the Post, “records of New York Times reporters Raymond Bonner and Jane Perlez, who worked in Jakarta in 2004, also were compromised.”
In 2006, after ABC reporters Brian Ross and Richard Esposito broke a story about the CIA’s secret prisons in Romania and Poland, a senior federal law enforcement official told them that the government is tracking their phone numbers in an effort to root out confidential sources. "It’s time for you to get some new cell phones, quick," the source told them in an in-person conversation.
In another leak case, New York Times reporter James Risen has been fighting a subpoena from Obama’s Justice Department for years. The Obama DOJ was after his sources for a chapter in his book about the Bush administration, State of War.
The Obama administration inherited the case from the Bush administration, and despite the fact that the district court judge sided with Risen during both the grand jury and trial, DOJ has continued to appeal the case. Last May, the DOJ argued before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that reporters’ privilege does not exist at all for national security reporters.
While reporters and news agencies are the focus of the AP scandal, they are by no means the only ones that are being targeted by federal agencies with surveillance tactics akin to those used by fascist and totalitarian regimes. The expansion of government surveillance power began in earnest with the USA Patriot Act and has been expanded ever since.
In 2005, the New York Times revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) was conducting a secret and illegal wiretapping program in search of terrorists. Instead of reprimanding the government, Congress passed the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which made the practice legal.
After an AT&T whistleblower revealed in 2006 that a staggering number of emails and phone calls were being surveilled under FISA, another amendment to FISA was passed In June 2008 to further expand the scope of the government's authority. A secret ex parte FISA court now exists solely to grant FISA warrants, which, as a lower court acknowledged, almost never denies a request.
Of course now, with the breaking news of the AP scandal, politicians and news agencies are expressing their shock and outrage at an unprecedented noise level. Yet years ago, when the measures that enabled the abuses were being put into place and codified under new laws, little if anything was heard in the press and there were no congressional hearings. Perhaps if something had been done before and not after the fact, Americans would not be at a point where many of their constitutional rights have disappeared.
Why the double standard?
There are many theories why Benghazi, the IRS and AP stories are getting so much attention in congress and the media when similar misconduct was largely ignored in the past. The partisan behavior of both parties suggests that few politicians care about a foreign policy that treats all nations in an unbiased manner, keeps Americans abroad out of harm’s way, legislative actions that provide equal protection under the law and impartial government agencies and services.
Many on the left claim that is simply because a non-white democrat is in the White House and the right is in attack mode, worrying about upcoming elections with nothing meritorious to run with. Many on the right claim it is because these “scandals” are worse than similar ones that occurred under the Bush administration.
While there may be some truth in both perceptions, politicians and the media fail to put the double standard of politicized government based on ideological bias into a larger context. Radack touched upon an overriding theme it when she wrote of “speaking truth to power” and one can expound on that concept in the context of the recent “scandals.”
That context is better described as an ideological bias in Washington and the corporate media which tilts to the right in favor of the moneyed establishment over anyone or any group that challenges the status quo. Liberal groups who pursue causes such as the anti-war movement are not treated the same as conservative groups who pursue things such as the anti-tax movement because liberal causes tend to be at odds with the corporate oligarchs, while conservative causes tend to be aligned with the interests of the ultra-rich.
David Sirota, writing for Salon.com, sums it up very well:
…When conservative groups happen to be treated like liberal groups, the Washington Outrage Machine turns the noise up to 11 – even though when liberal groups were targeted, that Outrage Machine remained dormant. And with today’s national press corps reoriented around amplifying – rather than challenging – power, this double standard is then predictably reflected in a corresponding discrepancy in coverage.
The same concept applies when Democratic administrations are perceived to be challenging the status quo of moneyed elite, even though the policies and actions of the Obama administration have continued to benefit large corporations, Wall Street banks and the military-industrial complex.
Politicized administration of law and public policy is never acceptable, no matter which party is in power or who or what is being targeted. The recent Benghazi, IRS and AP “scandals” should be frowned upon by every American. But Americans also need to take a stand against all destructive foreign policy decisions and constitutional infringements no matter which party is in power.
That should have been done when the policies and practices that led to these abuses were being put into place over ten years ago. Overlooking trends in law and government because a favored political party is in power will catch people sleeping while their constitutional rights are being trampled. Selective outrage, double standards and hypocrisy will never move the country in the right direction.
What you can do
Call AG Eric Holder and tell him exactly what you think of the trampling of constitutional rights: 202-353-1555. You can also call your members of Congress and demand immediate, strong oversight. Ask them stand up to the national security apparatus that has been complicit in creating and empowering government agencies that are undermining the constitution. Tell them to act like representatives of the people and the co-equal branch of government that Americans elected them to be.