May 15, 2013

Our View: Federal scandals signal U.S. officials' overreach

The targeting of conservative groups and the seizure of AP phone records flout the Constitution.

The Obama administration has accomplished something that has been a goal in Washington for some time: It has brought together Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals.

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Federal officials have displayed a disturbing sense of entitlement as they’ve carried out actions that present an obvious risk to Americans’ constitutional rights.

What's united these usually polarized groups is their shock at the recent activities of the Obama administration.

On Friday, an Internal Revenue Service official publicly admitted and apologized for the agency's having targeted tea party groups seeking tax-exempt status between 2010 and 2012.

Then Monday, The Associated Press alleged that the Justice Department secretly obtained records of calls made from numerous AP phone lines in April and May 2012. (The department acknowledged its role in the secret subpoena Tuesday, justifying it as a part of an inquiry into the disclosure of information on a foiled al-Qaida plot.)

The threat to the Constitution is chillingly obvious. Subjecting members of conservative groups to extra IRS scrutiny denies them freedom of association by penalizing their gathering for a common purpose. The massive subpoena of a news organization's records is an equally grave attempt to undermine freedom of the press. Federal officials have a blunt instrument -- the authority to demand and oversee an investigation -- and they haven't handled it well.

The IRS is supposed to carefully screen all groups that seek tax-exempt status. Instead, it homed in on groups with names such as "Tea Party" or "Take Back the Country."

Under political pressure, the supposedly nonpartisan agency has a record of targeting specific people and organizations without cause -- everyone from right-wing foundations to President Nixon's political opponents to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The IRS has left itself open to the perception that its close screening of tea party groups is part of this pattern of harassment, even if turns out to have been well-meant but just misguided.

For its part, the Justice Department may think that national security interests put its seizure of AP phone records on firm ground.

However, it has to provide more information to back up its claim. Prosecutors must show that they had no other way to obtain the information and that notifying the news cooperative of the subpoena would have threatened the federal investigation's integrity.

Department officials also should be grilled on how it advanced their investigation to learn the name of every person called by multiple AP journalists over a period of eight weeks.

The department may say it's trying to protect national security. But given this administration's history of zealously pursuing suspected leakers, it's more likely that the department was trying to protect its control over how information is "spun" to the public.

After the Internal Revenue Service story broke, Maine Sen. Susan Collins said the IRS' treatment of conservative groups "contributes to the profound distrust that the American people have in government." She's right.

The AP scandal will simply compound Americans' cynicism that their government is committed to upholding their constitutional rights.

And if these doubts become entrenched among citizens of this country, that will be the biggest scandal of all.


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