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Governance as Sadomasochism: Obama from the IRS to the Associated Press

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Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced at a news conference on Tuesday that the Justice Department would open a criminal investigation into the Internal Revenue Service's focus on conservative groups.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced at a news conference on Tuesday that the Justice Department would open a criminal investigation into the Internal Revenue Service's focus on conservative groups.
(Image by Doug Mills/The New York Times)
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>Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced at a news conference on Tuesday that the Justice Department would open a criminal investigation into the Internal Revenue Service's focus on conservative groups. by Doug Mills/The New York Times

What's extraordinary about the brewing controversy over the Internal Revenue Service's review of Tea Party groups' application for tax-free status is that the Obama administration enjoys the flagellation, the groveling, the humiliation. What's striking about the scandal over the Justice Department's seizure of two months worth of Associated Press reporters' phone records is that the administration enjoys inflicting pain, tightening the screws on the press and paddling the Constitution. This is governance as sadomasochism.

Obama and team play both dominant and submissive. On most issues most days, the administration cowers before its masters in the Republican Party and the conservative media. Bold progressive policy? Exciting new initiative? Sharp break with the lawlessness of the past? Not a chance. The more important the matter, the more central to peace or social justice, the more certain it is that Obama trims sails, pulls punches, and retreats rather than advances. Should one detect, however, the slightest whiff of whistleblower inspired transparency on defense or foreign policy, moments for example when the War on Terror is exposed as , or when an agency is caught doing its job, the dungeon door slams shut on the offender. Even the use of universally recognized safewords, old-fashioned phrases like freedom of the press, or the peoples' right to know, will not reopen it.

The IRS "scandal" can only be described as such by those with short memories, even by the amnesiac standards of American politics. The nonprofit unit at the IRS, those folks charged with granting and reviewing tax-free status for "social welfare" organizations, confronted a deluge of applications following the rise of corporate-backed and independent Tea Party groups. There were 1,741 applications for 501c(4) status in fiscal year 2010, and 2,774 applications in fiscal year 2011 while the number of IRS employees shrank. The Tea Party was a new phenomenon; the IRS should naturally take a close look.

Rather than simply rubber stamp every request as expected by whiny conservatives, the agency generated reasonable if shifting standards to sort the genuine from the fraudulent. That this appears "political" is unavoidable; the groups are, after all, political. Lois Lerner, the nonprofit section chief, clearly warned her staff not to "target" Tea Party groups for extra scrutiny, and changed guidelines used by the Cincinnati office she considered overly strict. In the end, not a single Tea Party group was turned down for c(4) status (though some applications took years, and others ended up in limbo). Where's the enjoyable suffering in that? So, to ramp up the administration's own pain, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the opening of a criminal investigation into Internal Revenue's actions, and provided for a year's worth of Fox News programming.

The real scandal at the agency of course is its unwillingness to go after the tax-free status of clearly partisan heavy hitters like Cross Roads GPS (Karl Rove) and Priorities USA (Barak Obama), or of those churches that serve as Sunday morning extensions of Republican campaigns.    

Far more outrageous than the masochistic IRS "scandal" is Obama's relentless, sadistic pursuit of national defense leakers and whistleblowers like Bradley Manning as the ultimate criminals, and the latest overstep with the Associated Press. While there have been no prosecutions for torture, signature drone strikes, extraordinary rendition or indefinite detention, the President indicted six current and former government officials under the World War One-era Espionage Act, twice as many actions as brought by all previous administrations combined. How's that for bringing the pain?

The Associated Press was not told why the FBI secretly seized the records of over twenty of its office and reporters' phone lines, including their home phones and cellphones. It's likely connected to an AP story a year ago regarding the CIA's foiling of a Yemeni plot to bomb a passenger jet (a story the news agency held for several days at the White House's request). Knowledge that one has been bad, and deserves punishment, but ignorance as to why, inflicts a special agony.

AP President Gary Pruitt certainly felt the sting. "There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters," he wrote in a furious letter to Eric Holder. "These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the news gathering activities undertaken by The A.P. during a two-month period, provide a road map to A.P.'s news gathering operations, and disclose information about A.P.'s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know."

An administration less into pain as pleasure would put too-big-to-fail banksters, mortgage fraudsters, and interest rate manipulators on trial. We get kinky politics instead: the flaying of decent soldiers, analysts and civil servants just trying to do their jobs. Historians seeking the President's motto might consider the following: "if you can't beat "em, let "em beat you."

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Steve Breyman teaches peace, environmental and media studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
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