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Two separate cases display government overreach

May. 16, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

President Barack Obama was correct when he said it was "outrageous" that the Internal Revenue Service singled out conservative groups for extra scrutiny in regard to their tax-exempt status.

That also describes the Justice Department's actions in secretly obtaining two months of telephone records listing outgoing telephone calls for the work and personal phone numbers of individual Associated Press reporters and editors, general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and the main number for the AP in the House of Representatives press gallery.

Although the Justice Department did not specify the reason for obtaining the records, it apparently had to do with an investigation into the leaking of classified information about a foiled terror plot that was reported by the AP on May 7, 2012. The story was published after government officials said it would not pose a national security risk.

In the two unrelated cases, agencies in Obama's administration displayed an overreach that shouldn't be tolerated by either him or the public. The first smacks of using a powerful federal agency for political purposes; the other undermines First Amendment guarantees of freedom of the press and speech.

Both situations warrant independent investigations.

In the IRS matter, acting IRS chief Steven Miller characterized the handling of the conservative political groups' requests for tax-exempt status as being done with "a lack of sensitivity." That understates what happened.

An IRS official learned in June 2011 that groups with "Tea Party," "Patriot" or "9/12 Project" in their names were being flagged for additional scrutiny, according to a draft report by the Treasury inspector general for tax administration. In some cases, agents inappropriately asked for lists of donors. Low-level agency employees in a Cincinnati office were blamed.

The practice was ordered stopped, however it was kept under wraps until just recently. Miller, who has been aware of it for a year, and the division head who ordered it stopped both have had ample opportunities to disclose it after complaints started piling up from lawmakers.

It seems such a grievous error requires some housecleaning in that agency, just to make it clear that the IRS is not to be used as a political arm of whichever party is in power.

The seizure of reporters' and editors' phone records also is alarming. An attorney for The Associated Press called it a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into a news organization's operations. The AP was informed after it was done, and it raised questions about whether the Justice Department followed its own policy of exhausting every other means to get the information it desired. The volume of records suggests a fishing expedition by the agency, not a narrowly focused search, which is also supposed to be Justice Department policy.

The upshot of such a foray into phone records is a chilling effect on news organizations' ability to gather information related to the functioning of government and government officials. That is news organizations' key role in our democracy and the reason they are protected in the First Amendment.

Members of Congress, as well as various news and civil liberties groups, are calling for an explanation for the Justice Department's unusual action. That agency should supply it and stop hiding behind the cloak of "an ongoing investigation."

Meanwhile, President Obama should remind those in his administration that the government is supposed to serve the public in an evenhanded fashion and uphold the law, not bend it.

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