The Obama administration has accomplished something that has been a goal in Washington for a long time: It has brought together Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals.

What unites these usually polarized groups is their shock at the recent activities of the Obama administration.

On Friday, an Internal Revenue Service official publicly apologized for the agency’s having targeted tea party groups seeking tax-exempt status between 2010 and 2012.

Then on Monday, The Associated Press alleged that the Justice Department secretly obtained records of calls made from AP phone lines in April and May 2012. (The department admitted its role in the subpoena on Tuesday, justifying it as a part of an inquiry into a leak of data about a foiled al-Qaida plot.)

In both cases, federal officials have displayed a disturbing sense of entitlement, even as they’ve courted allegations of flouting basic constitutional rights.

The massive subpoena of a news-gathering organization’s records is a direct threat to freedom of the press. Subjecting conservative groups’ tax exemption applications to extra scrutiny presents an equally strong risk to freedom of association.


Attorney General Eric Holder has ordered a criminal probe into the IRS scandal, but given the Justice Department’s involvement in the AP matter, Holder lacks credibility as the head of a neutral, engaged investigation.

The IRS is supposed to carefully screen all groups that seek tax-exempt status. Instead, it homed in on groups with names such as “Tea Party” or “Take Back the Country.”

Under political pressure, the supposedly nonpartisan agency has a history of targeting specific people and groups without cause — right-wing foundations to President Nixon’s enemies to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — and it’s easy to make the case that the current scandal is more of the same.

For its part, the Justice Department may think that national security interests put its seizure of AP phone records on firm ground. However, it has to provide more information to back up its claim.

Prosecutors must show that they had no other way to get the information and that notifying the AP would have threatened the investigation’s integrity. They also should be grilled on how it advanced the investigation to learn the name of every person called by multiple AP journalists over a period of eight weeks.

The authority of federal officials to demand and oversee a poorly defined investigation has become a blunt instrument. Maine Sen. Susan Collins was right when she said that the IRS’ focus on tea party groups “contributes to the profound distrust that the American people have in government.”

The AP matter will simply compound the cynicism. And the Obama administration’s credibility will slip yet again.

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