Pick Your Scandal

Violating Americans’ privacy while failing to identify the terrorists among us.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

All can agree that the Obama administration is mired in myriads of scandals, but as yet no one can quite figure out what they all mean and where they will lead.

Benghazi differs from all the other scandals — and from both Watergate and Iran-Contra — because in this case administration lapses led to the deaths of four Americans. Nine months later, the administration’s problems of damage control remain fourfold: (a) there was ample warning that American personnel were in danger in Libya, and yet requests for increased security were denied; (b) during the actual attack, the American tradition of sending in relief forces on the chance that fellow Americans could be saved was abrogated; (c) the president and his top officials knowingly advanced a narrative of a culpable filmmaker that they knew was not accurate; (d) a through c are best explained as resulting not from honest human error or the fog of war, but from a methodical effort to assure the public in the weeks before the election that “lead from behind” in Libya had been a successful venture and that the death of Osama bin Laden had made al-Qaeda–inspired terrorism rare. All other concerns became secondary, including the safety of Americans in Libya.

Until someone proves that the administration was not wrong in failing to beef up our posts, was not wrong in not ordering immediate succor, was not wrong in blaming the violence on a filmmaker, and was not wrong in covering up the truth by promoting a demonstrably false narrative, the scandal will not go away.

Other questions remained unanswered. What role was the “consulate” actually playing? Who gave the stand-down order despite the calls for help? Who dreamed up the filmmaker-as-guilty-party yarn? Did General David Petraeus’s post-Benghazi testimony square with the CIAtalking points, and were any of these events related to his post-election resignation? And does Jay Carney face any consequences for blatantly lying to the press corps when he asserted that the administration had made a single adjustment to its Benghazi talking points — when there were, in fact, twelve substantive revised drafts?

In the AP and Fox News scandals, it cannot have been leaks per se that prompted the administration to go after journalists, given that the administration itself had leaked key classified information about the Stuxnet virus, the drone program, the bin Laden hit, and the Yemeni double agent. The suspect reporters were not so much enemies as rivals. They were monitored not because the administration wanted all leaks stopped so as to ensure that national security was not endangered, but because it wished to retain a monopoly on them: In-house favorable leaks were okay; unauthorized ones by others were grounds for surveillance. Note in all these scandals that when the Obama administration begins demonizing an opponent — Fox News since 2009; the Tea Party in 2010 — then usually the government finds a way unlawfully to go after it. For now, the public wonders how does Eric Holder explain his conflicting testimony to Congress, and will those in the administration who leaked favorable classified information to pet reporters be prosecuted? Will granting exclusive access to the bin Laden trove to a reporter like David Ignatius, who could be expected to present a narrative laudatory of the administration, have any repercussions?

The AP/Fox scandal affects not only the reporters involved but also the way the news is disseminated, and the IRS mess potentially affects every American. When the IRS comes calling, Americans cannot employ the sort of obfuscation and dissimulation that the IRS itself now employs. Try taking the Fifth Amendment with an IRS auditor or claiming that a suspicious visit to a business associate was due to an Easter-egg roll, and then see how well your audit goes. Because the system of voluntary tax compliance collapses without honesty and nonpartisanship, our entire tax-collection apparatus is now suspect. Every prominent conservative from now on, every tea-party-like nonprofit organization, every Republican political donor will assume, rightly or wrongly, that the next IRSletter in the mail is not legitimate, but prompted by Obama-era politics.

I don’t see how the reputation of the IRS can quite recover, especially given reports of its repugnant waste of money on entertainment and frivolity, at a time of sequester belt-tightening (e.g., why do travelers suffer airline delays supposedly due to thinned-out air-traffic controllers, while IRS agents play-act Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock in a $60,000 parody video?), coupled with the fact that 47 percent of the public pays no federal income tax at all. Add it all up, and there is now a historic opportunity for principled reformers to do away with the IRS as we know it, and to rebrand it as a collection agency for a flat federal income tax. Will a new gang of eight address “comprehensive tax-collection reform”?

So far, we know that the administration’s story that IRS malfeasance was confined to a single regional office cannot be true. If it turns out that Washington IRSofficials were communicating with the Obama administration about inordinate scrutiny of political opponents, then the scandal will reach Nixonian proportions.

The problem with the NSA monitoring is not just Obama’s hypocrisy of once decrying elements of the Patriot Act only to embrace them, or indeed expand upon them. By now, everyone knows that what Obama demagogued in 2008 was what he adopted in 2009. Nor is the problem that the U.S. does not have a need to monitor the communications of potential terrorists who plan attacks through the Internet, e-mail, and cell phones. Rather, the dilemma for the Obama administration is that the apparently vastly expanded NSA surveillance came at a time when, in high-profile terrorist cases — the Tsarnaev bombing, Major Hasan’s murder spree — U.S. officials did not use the intelligence in their possession to preempt terrorist acts. Fairly or not, there is the impression that a James Rosen of Fox News or the tea-party affiliates were more likely to earn unlawful federal attention than was a possible terrorist. In the present climate, the NSA will be presumed guilty of something until proven innocent.

And of course the NSA disclosures do not appear in a vacuum, but amid a multitude of other scandals in which the administration’s initial explanations have proven deceptive. In other words, if even a few cases emerge in which those who by no stretch of the imagination could be suspected of terrorism were monitored, then the NSA disclosures will prove by far the most damaging of all the scandals.

Finally, the common denominator in these transgressions is that they all predated the 2012 election, were kept secret from the public, and emerged only once Barack Obama was safely elected. In that regard, they were successful operations that ensured that the voters went to the polls with the impression that al-Qaeda–inspired terror was rare, Libya was secure, the Tea Party had deflated and disappeared, and their unheralded president was, as the good leaks showed, in the shadows successfully fighting terrorists by drone, computer, SEAL teams, and double agents. The later whistle-blowers — the State Department’s Gregory Hicks, the NSA’s Edward Snowden, and Lois Lerner of the IRS in her psychodramatic response to the set-up questioner – were supposed Obama supporters and came forward only after the election. Note also the clear administration lying: Susan Rice reiterating the false story about a culpable filmmaker and a spontaneous demonstration; Jay Carney sticking to his lie about a single change in administration talking points; Eric Holder misleading Congress by assuring the House Judiciary Committee that he would not do what he in fact did in the James Rosen case; James Clapper insisting to Congress that the NSA collects data only under strict court supervision.

Paranoia over reelection, in classic Nixon style, is the common key that unlocks much of the mystery surrounding the administration’s reckless, unethical, and often unlawful behavior.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His The Savior Generals is just out from Bloomsbury Books.


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