Those who have spoken out against this President's expansion of power have been been investigated and intimidated.
By Janet Daley
Barack Obama announced an end to America’s war on terror last week. In future, he declared, he would restrict the unmanned drone attacks that had been his own signature anti-terrorist initiative, and he would really, really make an effort to shut down the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay – as he had promised to do way back when he was running for president the first time.
Presumably, this pronouncement was designed to win back the favour of the liberal media, which has been energetically disowning him ever since his administration staggered into the most spectacular series of Washington scandals since Watergate. This suspicion is reinforced by the fact that buried in that War on Terror (End Of) speech was an almost subliminal attempt to address one of the most damaging of the White House embarrassments.
But we must begin at the beginning, since the President’s tribulations – which are infamous by now in the United States – have received little coverage in the British press. The most serious of them was almost too shocking to be credible, but it had to be believed because the officials in charge made a point (indeed, contrived an opportunity) to apologise for it publicly.
It seemed that the Internal Revenue Service – the US equivalent of the UK’s HM Revenue and Customs – had been deliberately discriminating against organisations with the words “Tea Party” or “patriot” in their titles. In other words, they had been singling out for high pressure audits and super-scrutiny, groups that were thought to be critical of the Obama administration. Those who had spoken out against the President’s expansion of government power, or in favour of tax-cutting, or even those who sought to educate public opinion in what they believed to be the meaning of the Constitution, were interrogated and intimidated in a way that Lois Lerner, the head of the tax division responsible, admitted was “absolutely inappropriate”.
Inappropriate? The only word that would suffice here would be “outrageous”, or maybe “illegal”. The IRS is one of the mightiest federal government agencies. It has terrifying powers over ordinary citizens that our own dear HMRC would die for. And, by its own admission, it had been carrying out a politically targeted vendetta against organisations that were simply exercising the right, guaranteed to them by the First Amendment to the Constitution, to free speech and assembly. (This would be roughly the equivalent to HMRC engaging in a concerted campaign of harassment designed to put Ukip out of business.)
Scarcely anything could be more antithetical to the principles on which America was founded than this abuse of federal government power to suppress dissident opinion. With apparently unconscious irony, Ms Lerner has now invoked her Fifth Amendment right to refuse to testify about these matters before a congressional committee. “Pleading the Fifth”, as it is known, permits a witness to refuse to give evidence under oath that may incriminate him. (Back in the day, it was regarded by McCarthyites as the traditional recourse of the Commie scoundrel unwilling to answer questions about his political affiliations.)
But the IRS farrago – still happily bubbling away – was then overtaken by some breathtaking revelations about the administration’s infringements on the freedom of the press. First there was the matter of the Associated Press agency, whose phone records were seized on an industrial scale – without any of the legally required warrants or warnings – on what turned out to be a false allegation that it was breaching national security.
The charge was shown to be completely baseless, and the procurement of all the phone records of AP’s Washington bureau was unlawful. But the incident left a lasting effect: AP’s reporters say that confidential sources are now reluctant to talk to them for fear that their phone details will be captured by surveillance. So their ability to carry out investigative journalism has been seriously damaged. That was when the faith of the mainstream media – which had been in Obama’s pocket from the earliest days – began to crumble.
But the best was yet to come. The world was well and truly turned upside down when it was revealed that James Rosen, a reporter from Fox News – the Right-of-centre cable news channel that causes the President and his allies to rail and rend their garments in fury – was investigated, under the Espionage Act no less, for soliciting information that was labelled classified. (Note: it is not illegal – or even particularly out of the ordinary – for a journalist to make such a request.)
This investigation involved commandeering not only Mr Rosen’s phone records and those of his parents, but his private emails, as well as his movements into and out of government buildings as recorded on his press security pass. And that – it turned out – was a bridge too far.
The liberal media were suddenly outdoing each other in their Constitutional outrage. The New York Times (which has been the quasi-official Obama fanzine) went into overdrive. In an editorial board statement, it said, with that traditional Times air of ponderous self-importance: “With the decision to label a Fox News television reporter a possible 'co-conspirator’… the administration has moved beyond protecting government secrets to threatening fundamental freedoms of the press to gather news.”
What is startling about this is not just the paper’s declamatory judgment on the White House that it once unreservedly adored, but its remarkable willingness to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Fox News, which it generally loathes. And that brings us to Mr Obama’s throwaway line in the “War on Terror” speech. Seemingly a propos of nothing, the President said: “Journalists should not be at risk for doing their jobs.” He had, therefore, asked the Attorney General, Eric Holder, to investigate and review the existing guidelines “governing investigations that involve reporters”. As it was Mr Holder who signed off on the search warrant for James Rosen’s private emails, this presumably means that the Attorney General will be investigating himself.
But how much of this can actually be nailed to the White House door? Is there a “smoking gun” Obama email that says: go and get those guys who are giving me a hard time? Almost certainly not. But there was no need for one: he and his official spokesman had been banging on openly about the threat from Tea Party fanatics and the obstacle that Fox News presented to their virtuous reforms, for as long as they had been in power.
When you cast your opponents as the personification of evil – when you cease to see them as simply fellow countrymen who have different values and contrary views to your own, then this is where it ends.
Who, they implicitly demanded, would rid them of these turbulent enemies? Clearly, there were plenty of eager officials ready to try.