With Government Abuses, The Problem is the Power, Not the Person


Jay Carney
White House

As delicious as it is to watch White House minion Jay Carney squirm under questioning about the targeting of journalists, and to hear that tax agency apparatchik Lois Lerner will take the Fifth when called before a congressional committee investigating improper scrutiny of conservative groups by the IRS, it's important to remember that the problem lies in the existence of the power that's being abused, not just in the individuals doing the abusing. To punish Justice Department officials, IRS agents, or even the Obama administration might bring an end to the current round of scandals, but it will inevitably leave us repeating some version of this exercise in a few years, at best. The end goal should be to strip politicians and government officials of the power to punish journalists and political opponents — not to make sure that Republicans get their (next) turn.

Last week, the most excellent journalist and scrutinizer of creatures governmental, James Bovard, had a piece in the Wall Street Journal outlining the Internal Revenue Service's long history of dirty tricks on behalf of whoever is in power. Wrote he:

Many Republicans are enraged over revelations in recent days that the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative nonprofit groups with a campaign of audits and harassment. But of all the troubles now dogging the Obama administration—including the Benghazi fiasco and the Justice Department's snooping on the Associated Press—the IRS episode, however alarming, is also the least surprising. As David Burnham noted in "A Law Unto Itself: The IRS and the Abuse of Power" (1990), "In almost every administration since the IRS's inception the information and power of the tax agency have been mobilized for explicitly political purposes."

Bovard sketches how "President Franklin Roosevelt used the IRS to harass newspaper publishers who were opposed to the New Deal" and "Kennedy … used the IRS to strong-arm companies into complying with "voluntary" price controls. Steel executives who defied the administration were singled out for audits." He points out that the "IRS was … given Nixon's enemies list to, in the words of White House counsel John Dean, 'use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies.'"

We discovered in the 1990s, Bovard points out, that not just presidents, but members of Congress, had used the IRS to target political enemies for audits.

Likewise, the Justice Department's surveillance of Associated Press reporters and Fox News correspondent James Rosen was no isolated incident. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation points out, media screams may have been raised when professional journalists found themselves on the receiving end of security-state tactics, but the government has been wielding such secretive and intrusive power against the general public for years. Write Cindy Cohn and Trevor Timm for EFF:

The AP detailed in its letter to the Justice Department how its privacy was grossly invaded even though the government accessed only the call records of its reporters and not the content of their conversations. We completely agree. Unfortunately, this isn't just a problem in the AP investigation. Law enforcement agencies routinely demand and receive this information about ordinary Americans over long periods of time without any court involvement whatsoever, much less a full warrant.

The magic phrase "national security" is often invoked to justify these transgressions — often in transparently convenient ways (Attorney General Holder claimed the AP had put "lives at risk" with the story that sparked the scrutiny, even though John Brennan had said there was no such risk.) But intrusive surveillance is increasingly wielded in routine criminal investigations with no appeal to a supposedly higher purpose that trumps constitutional protections.

It's a joy watching government officials dodge questions, insist on blissful ignorance of the world's evils and invoke their right against self-incrimination. Such great theater. But, at the end of the day, disposing of those officials without doing anything else just clears the way for a new crop of power-abusers and useful drones effectively identical to the last batch, though with a slightly different list of targets for mistreatment.

We should get rid of the abusers sure, if only to remind the next batch that there can be consequences. But it's much more important to get rid of the agencies and powers that are inevitably abused, year after year, so that we don't have to act surprised, yet again, that we can't trust government officials to use power with restraint.