Americans see evidence of truth-shading, arrogance and intrusion
By The Chicago Tribune Editorial Board
•Multiple White House claims about Washington's handling of the murderous raid in Benghazi stand exposed as false.
•Internal Revenue Service officials admit a worse-by-the-day scandal that appalls fair-minded Americans.
•The U.S. Department of Justice scrambles to explain its clandestine collection of records on work and personal telephone lines that The Associated Press says are used by more than 100 of its journalists.
In reaction, the White House blames political opponents, disavows ownership or pleads ignorance.
Hard as it may be, then, set aside your own politics and ask yourself which of these Monday statements rings truer:
'The whole issue of talking points, frankly, throughout this process has been a sideshow. ... And suddenly, three days ago, this gets spun up as if there's something new to the story. There's no 'there' there.'
— President Barack Obama, dismissing congressional scrutiny of his and his subordinates' statements about Benghazi as a 'political circus'
'Americans should take notice that top Obama administration officials increasingly see themselves as above the law and emboldened by the belief that they don't have to answer to anyone.'
— House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa
For now, many among us would take Option 2. With each of these troubling disclosures, the Obama administration finds itself reacting to appearances of overreach, of arrogance, of determination to dodge its embarrassments rather than to take ownership of them.
We don't expect unanimity of agreement on this. On each of these controversies, though, even some of the president's most loyal supporters — from Capitol Hill to the liberal commentariat to Main Streets across the land — are questioning the government's conduct on his watch. That turnabout either angers or amuses opponents inclined to ask the supporters, "Where have you been?"
At each of these turns, the Obama administration has looked manipulative, defensive and peevish. In one sense those aren't startling reactions; they're vulnerabilities for any White House that, like this one, wants an image of moral righteousness, honesty and transparency.
Taken together, though, these controversies project a less flattering image of truth-shading, hubris and intrusion. In the week of humiliating disclosures that started with last Wednesday's congressional hearing on Benghazi, Americans haven't seen the administration exhibit ... one shred of humility:
•The White House and State Department have taken vague responsibility for Benghazi mistakes, but neither has produced answers to the most crucial questions, starting with:
Who, exactly, had rejected repeated requests for security upgrades from U.S. officials in Libya?
Who, exactly, decided not to attempt a military rescue, an F-16 flyover, a NATO or other allied reaction, something, during the eight-hour assault? Who, exactly, let the task of informing the American people deteriorate into an orgy of tail-covering and lies? And why, exactly, does the president's spokesman still mislead Americans by suggesting that the Central Intelligence Agency, rather than the State Department or White House, drove that process — essentially blaming CIA staffers who did the typing rather than blaming administration officials who told them what to type?
•The IRS' disclosure that it had inordinately targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status was astonishing. No more astonishing, though, than Tuesday's news that the IRS allegedly gave nonpublic information about nine of those groups to ProPublica, an investigative journalism organization.
Obama called the early disclosures outrageous and vowed to learn "exactly what happened on this." The president would have better served himself and his administration, though, by acknowledging the shriekingly obvious: If IRS officials were trying to hinder conservative groups that opposed Obama, that means high-level federal officials were trying to steer the Nov. 6 election to the president. There was no such candor from the president or, Tuesday, from his spokesman.
•Americans thus far know less about the Justice Department's grab of AP staffers' phone records. But here, too, many of those Americans can't help but ask if all the president's men and women stay up late, trying to look intrusive.
By the AP's account, Justice subjected the organization to an unprecedented invasion of its news-gathering operations. The evident goal: to identify the government source(s) of a May 2012 AP story about a CIA operation in Yemen that had stopped an al-Qaida plot to bomb a U.S.-bound airplane.
Once again, a question raised by the Benghazi debacle resonates loudly: As the 2012 presidential election approached, were some federal officials overstepping bounds to shore up the president's campaign claim that, as he said at the Democratic National Convention, "al-Qaida is on the path to defeat"?
The easiest way for the president and his White House to further that rising suspicion — we emphasize that it's thus far unproven — is to demonstrate three things to his newly energized foes and to his friends who didn't expect this sort of conduct: that his subordinates will end their egregious stonewalling on Benghazi, will pursue the IRS scandal as high as it goes and will demand full disclosure of whether his Justice Department scrupulously followed the law in its pursuit of journalists' phone records.
Until the president makes and keeps those three assurances, he'll continue to make Issa's accusation ring true: This administration looks guilty of overreach — of believing it is above the law.