News that the IRS singled out conservative groups for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status is disturbing, and those responsible should be punished. Even more alarming is the revelation that the Justice Department secretly subpoenaed telephone records of 20 Associated Press phone lines in an attempt to find a leak.
Critics will howl that we are treating the threat to a free press more seriously than harassment of right-wing groups. They're right, we are. Here's why.
The groups singled out for IRS overreach were seeking 501(c)(4) status.
Most people probably have heard of 501(c)(3) groups, named for the portion of the tax code that allows them. Contributions to those groups are tax-deductible, and the groups may not engage in partisan politics.
Lesser known are 501(c)(4) groups. Like their charitable counterparts, they pay no taxes, but contributions to them are not tax-deductible. They are classified as "social welfare" organizations, and as such, most of their activity is supposed to be nonpolitical.
The Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, however, said that 501(c)(4)s could advocate for and against candidates during an election campaign. What makes this status especially attractive to both sides of the political spectrum is that they are not required to reveal their donors' identities.
The IRS ought to have closely scrutinized all applications for 501(c)(4) status, regardless of the groups' political leanings. Instead, agency officials flagged groups with "tea party" or "patriot" in their names for special treatment.
Many conservative groups reported their applications were delayed, and they were asked to produce voluminous supporting documents and even to disclose donors — which is prohibited by law. This is the IRS, remember, which is notoriously finicky about the rules. It is worth noting that the IRS did not revoke any groups' tax-exempt status.
What IRS officials could have been thinking when directing, condoning or even overlooking this unfair treatment is a mystery. Those responsible should be punished, and the agency should take steps to make sure nothing like this happens again.
As if that were not enough, Monday brought the revelation that the Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records for Associated Press reporters and editors, including home and cellphones. The department apparently was trying to find out who leaked information about a terrorist plot to bomb an airliner that was foiled by the Central Intelligence Agency.
Normally, Justice Department rules require subpoenas of this kind to be used only after the targeted news organization is notified and given the opportunity to negotiate the terms and to challenge the subpoena in court.
Ever since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the government's adherence to such niceties has steadily eroded. The Obama administration has aggressively targeted leaks of national security information. The New York Times reports six current and former government officials have been indicted for leaking, twice the number of all previous administrations combined.
It is understandable that administration officials want to discourage leaks. But the phone records they obtained include every call made to and from the phones in question on every conceivable kind of news story. Not all confidential sources are passing on national security information. Some may be revealing government wrongdoing — and those sources now have even less reason to speak to a reporter than they did before.
AP President Gary Pruitt called the action an "unprecedented intrusion" into the AP's news-gathering operations. It is also a threat to the right of the American people to a free press.