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Latest incidents underscore Obama Administration's civil liberties problem

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Photo by Miguel Villagran/Getty Images

I have an old friend who refused to switch over to Gmail, Google's email service, several years ago when the company began rolling out beta accounts. The service's tagline about never having to delete an email thanks to its message threading and large amount of space available for each account, he said, made our messages prone to the government's Project Echelon. For years, I've dismissed his assumption as another conspiracy theory, a tinfoil hat approach to a new email service.

Thing is, after the last week the Obama Administration has had, his idea hardly seems silly anymore; in fact, it seems downright relevant.

Today, you've heard the national media play up a trio of controversies that are besieging the president and his administration: the Benghazi controversy, the IRS targeting of right-wing groups, and the Department of Justice's shady-as-hell collection of Associated Press phone records. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke today on the IRS investigation while White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was bombarded with questions over the AP story.

To limit the look at the fire the administration has come under to just these three stories, however, would be to ignore the greater context of the Obama presidency's now looming legacy of the dissolution of civil liberties which can include the administration's backing of the FBI's plan on Internet surveillance and the administration's reliance on drones. All told, it's been a bad week, yes, but when you add these last two topics to the pile, this administration's track record looks downright miserable.

That the administration cares little for privacy has been evident ever since President Obama reupped key parts of the Patriot Act pertaining to wiretapping without altering them in any way despite his campaign promises. And, as I wrote last week, the administration is on the cusp of backing an FBI plan to greatly expand the reaches of Internet surveillance in the era of instant messaging. That came right on the heels of charges from the ACLU that the FBI claims they don't need no stinkin' warrant to access those instant messages, Twitter direct messages, and Facebook messages for the purposes of surveillance. A May 8th CNET article on that issue indicated a split within the Obama administration, a split which last week's announcement seems to have stitched up into a nice, invasive package.

Not helping matters? Yesterday's reports that the Department of Justice secretly obtained phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors under circumstances that were murky, at best. Early indications are that the two months of phone records the DOJ obtained (April and May 2012) may relate to a May 2012 article about an alleged Al Qaeda bomb plot to hit on the anniversary of bin Laden's death, one that the AP originally held at the request of the White House.

The AP, of course, is understandably livid and the White House is already trying to distance themselves from this incident, saying it was totes the DOJ who did this and they totes don't know what's up. And it's not like the GOP, who will hit the DOJ the hardest on this, isn't somewhat culpable. But, if the FBI insists it can read my Twitter DMs complaining about an ex-girlfriend without a warrant and without violating the Fourth Amendment, it doesn't seem too far-fetched for the DOJ to hide behind national security when obtaining journalists' phone records.

And then there's the IRS's targeting of right-wing - and specifically Tea Party-associated - groups. While it appears as if, like the DOJ/AP incident, Pres. Obama is not directly responsible for these actions, they're both still horrible missteps that happened on his watch, under apparent violation of privacy and protection from an overreaching government. The White House contends President Obama found out about both the IRS and AP incidents from media reports, meaning these things happened without his knowledge and involvement. If true, that would seem to help remove Obama from any possible punishment for allowing these shady dealings to move forward. But it also shows a President out of touch with the government he's in charge of, one that's grown so big and, yes, overreaching that even the President can't control it.

That this IRS incident is particularly partisan will only fuel the shouts from the right that the federal government is far too big (which is hilarious given the way the GOP was so behind Bush and the original Patriot Act). Even worse, it appears as if the IRS head knew of this targeting in 2011, two full years before the IRS thought it could sluff off the issue with an apology, and meaning that the targeting was going on even before that.

If there's one thing that might actually help the IRS - and, thereby, Obama - it's that there's some fine print about the non-profit status of these groups and how it might be interpreted by those IRS employees in Ohio. As Jeffrey Toobin points out for the New Yorker:

It's important to review why the Tea Party groups were petitioning the I.R.S. anyway. They were seeking approval to operate under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code. This would require them to be "social welfare," not political, operations. There are significant advantages to being a 501(c)(4). These groups don't pay taxes; they don't have to disclose their donors--unlike traditional political organizations, such as political-action committees. In return for the tax advantage and the secrecy, the 501(c)(4) organizations must refrain from traditional partisan political activity, like endorsing candidates.


Toobin goes on to discuss how overtly political many such 501(c)(4) groups appeared to be, particularly during the 2010 and 2012 election cycles. He adds later that the targeting wasn't political bias by the IRS employees: "Rather, the I.R.S. employees thought that these groups might be doing explicit politics--which would disqualify them for 501(c)(4) status, and set them aside for closer examination."

This is all a fair point and one likely to be swallowed by the growing buzz around this administration's apparent growing contempt for civil liberties. And for that the Administration can only blame itself. Yes, perhaps the IRS incident is one that's much more gray than black or white in terms of wrongdoing, but the Administration has created an environment through all of these actions in which it's not hard to believe anything anymore. With each new "scandal" or incident, it seems that the Obama Administration is heading not in the direction of transparency that was originally promised but to one that's not only wrapped in secrecy but one that can't even be covert about its secret shenanigans.

Critics of the Second Bush Administration, myself included, crowed about the infringement on civil liberties wrapped snuggly in the jingoism of the Patriot Act. But, as I mentioned earlier, Obama has done little, if nothing, to reverse any of that. If anything, he's only continued the infringement. And a tight Obama ally, our own mayor Rahm Emanuel, recently went on record about the value of surveillance cameras in the wake of the Boston bombing. But what's the tipping point? Chicago already has the largest urban network of surveillance cameras in the world. And while the cameras helped identify suspects in the bombing - and other crimes, like the recent Mother's Day Second Line shooting in New Orleans - none of these tools helped prevent those crimes.

It'd be one thing if any of these incidents happened on their own in a vacuum but that's not the case. These incidents have unfolded one after the other, each incident wrapping itself around the previous one like a Russian nesting doll of paranoia. That this administration's love of drones is a well-known, non-contested fact simply firms up the base of this new environment, something so alarming that even Obama's own party got briefly riled up about it before being distracted by something shiny.

And while I won't drag the Benghazi controversy into this because it has more to do with the administration's reaction to an international incident than civil liberties and also has a much more partisan tinge than any of these other issues, it still leaves an oily residue over the administration that makes it so much easier to go up in flames with the more domestic-oriented incidents. It's just another thing that Obama's opponents can add to the list of bad missteps that are beginning to quickly taint the second Obama term, rotting it out from the root even as it barely gets underway. Buzzfeed's Ben Smith splits the difference, blaming both the Administration and an already existing atmosphere of fear for feeding this new frenzy. Yet when the administration does nothing to dispel these fears, it's hard to keep from seeing the upside of anything.

Suddenly, the suggestion by my tinfoil hat friend doesn't seem so crazy after all. I guess all I can ask is that the FBI keep its hands off my Fantasy Baseball trade proposal emails.

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