, Salem, MA

May 16, 2013

Our view: Rein in the IRS, not dissent

The Salem News

---- — Earlier this month, in a commencement address at Ohio State University, President Obama called on graduates to reject the voices of those who tell them to be wary of government.

“Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems,” the president said. “Some of these same voices also do their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices.”

It was naive advice. Certainly our government isn’t poised to strip us of our liberties at every turn. But neither is it always fully truthful and honest. We would be fools to ignore the advice of our founding fathers, who built the most democratic government they could conceive of, yet still warned that we must always be vigilant to keep it in check.

The revelations of the last few days have given us still more reason to remain vigilant about the abuse of power.

First came last Wednesday’s congressional hearing on the terrorist attack on the Benghazi consulate that resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. It is now perfectly clear our government misled us about what happened and why.

Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at first claimed the attack was fueled by outrage over a crude video seen as insulting to the prophet Muhammad. Federal authorities quickly arrested the filmmaker, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, who remains behind bars.

The statement about the video is no longer operative, as they used to say at the Nixon White House when a lie was exposed. The full truth about Benghazi has yet to be told.

Then we have Eric Holder’s Justice Department poking around in the work and personal phone records, J. Edgar Hoover-style, of Associated Press reporters and editors covering national security.

And of course, there was Friday’s bombshell admission by the Internal Revenue Service that it had targeted tea party groups and other organizations perceived as conservative during the run-up to the 2012 election.

The IRS pointed the finger at low-level agents. But the Associated Press has reported that senior IRS officials knew as early as 2011 that agents were going after conservative groups seeking nonprofit status.

A report by the Treasury Department’s inspector general due to be released this week said the head of the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt organizations was told in June 2011 that groups with the word “Tea Party,” ‘‘Patriot” or “9/12 Project” in their names were singled out for special scrutiny. The 9/12 Project was initiated by conservative TV personality Glenn Beck.

The IRS watch list was later expanded to include groups that sought to educate people about the Constitution and Bill of Rights, groups critical of “how the country is being run” and organizations involved in efforts to limit — or expand — government, according to the Washington Post.

Speaking to a House panel last year in response to tea party groups’ complaints of harassment, IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman, a George W. Bush appointee, adamantly denied any targeting of political groups. Another inoperative statement after Friday.

It is highly unlikely Obama knew of the IRS actions, and there is no evidence to suggest he did, though he would not be the first president to use the tax agency as a weapon against political opponents.

But by demonizing critics, Obama and his administration helped foster a climate in which the IRS felt empowered to harass those who oppose the administration.

Earlier this week, the president said that if certain groups were targeted by the IRS for their political views, “then that’s outrageous.”

It’s beyond outrageous, it’s frightening. It also may be criminal. Heads should roll.

As with Benghazi, Americans are entitled to the full truth about the IRS campaign to make life difficult for those who dare criticize government.

And beyond the immediate scandal, the IRS needs to be reined in.

As Daniel Webster noted almost 200 years ago, the power to tax is the power to destroy.

The IRS scandal shows it is also the power to suppress dissent. And that’s the first step down the road to tyranny.