Published May 16. 2013 4:00AM
At a time when Congress can't pass a budget and the president can't win approval of any important legislation, the public is indignant about the threat of an overreaching, all-powerful federal government that uses the IRS and the Justice Department to harass its enemies.
There's a disconnect here: The Obama administration fears and maybe even hates conservative activists, and it has a weird bipolar attitude about the news media's role in national-security leaks. But the real problem in Washington these days isn't an organized conspiracy against these groups. Rather, it's a federal establishment that's increasingly dysfunctional because of poor management and political second-guessing.
What should frighten the public isn't the federal government's monstrous power, but its impotence.
Scandal fever has begun to addle the national brain. What's needed, as these latest episodes clearly show, is adult supervision of the bureaucracy. This requires senior officials who are properly sensitive to political issues. But such officials have become so afraid of seeming to meddle that mistakes happen.
Where was the senior manager who should have stopped IRS employees from writing outrageous questionnaires and search queries targeting "Patriots" and "We the People"? Perhaps that person was wading through congressional messages urging IRS investigations of tax-exempt political groups. Or perhaps the supervisory post was unfilled because of gridlock on confirming nominations.
Where was the top Justice Department official who should have checked a runaway prosecutor from issuing an overbroad subpoena to The Associated Press? The attorney general recused himself because of fear of perceived conflict of interest. Perhaps lower-level officials were chilled by congressional demands for leak investigations - and insinuations the administration was itself the guilty party.
The principal activity of the federal government these days is investigating itself. No panel is bipartisan and independent enough to escape the charge that it is covering something up. This accusation has been leveled against the review panel on Benghazi headed by Tom Pickering, former undersecretary of state, and Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Good grief, if these two are part of a conspiracy, I'm moving to Moscow.
If you unpack the various scandals swirling around Washington you find a common theme of bad decisions by government officials, compounded by finger-pointing and second-guessing from Congress. Here are some moments in this chain of error.
• The IRS investigations of tea party-related conservative groups that began in March 2010 came a couple of months after the Supreme Court in Citizens United opened the way for corporate contributions to political causes. Garance Franke-Ruta, in her blog for The Atlantic, has identified congressional pressure on the IRS to investigate conservative tax-exempt groups. The unit that was supposed to make such determinations (located in Cincinnati in part to keep it away from political pressure) made an intolerable mistake in searching for right-wing groups using political terms.
But the dragnet was hardly a secret: News reports appeared in 2012 about tea party complaints of harassment, at a time when some congressional Democrats were demanding that the IRS crack down harder.
• The Justice Department launched two special investigations of leaks in June 2012 after intense Republican criticism of intelligence disclosures. The probes focused on the sources for stories discussing the Stuxnet cyber-attacks on Iran and a spy inside al-Qaida's Yemen affiliate.
Even a journalist can understand why officials get upset when such secrets are blown. But the GOP's larger motivation was its suspicion (apparently wrong) that senior Obama administration officials had organized the leaks. The administration's own leak obsession (fueled by fears of congressional criticism) led Justice Department officials to subpoena two months of records for more than 20 phones at the AP.
The administration has never properly explained its campaign against leaks - fearing political backlash.
• Finally, Benghazi, the scandal that keeps on giving: This one began in the fog of war, so it's best to be cautious about assigning responsibility. But the administration did try from the beginning to spin the story to preserve its campaign theme that Obama had won the war on terror; and the GOP has been spinning it ever since, to the point that the blame game is beginning to chill operations in North Africa.
Another generation would have said: Let's get on with it. We say, let's have another investigation.