Every so often I feel compelled to write something that has nothing to do with Israel or Turkey, the wider Middle East, or foreign policy in general, and today is one of those days. Instead of my usual fare, let me take a brief moment and use the current controversies engulfing the Obama administration to rant about how the silly debate over the size of government is entirely misplaced. Conservatives look at the IRS targeting Tea Party groups applying for non-profit status and quite naturally take away the lesson that big government is the problem and that the size of the public sector needs to be reduced. Similarly, big government is viewed as the culprit now that news has emerged that the Department of Justice secretly seized phone records from the Associated Press and email and phone records from Fox News reporter James Rosen in the pursuit of leak investigations. The argument is that were the government not so big, such abuses, mistakes, scandals, or whatever one wants to term them would not take place because the government would not have the resources to go after its enemies or people whom it feels like targeting.
This is a nice theory, but not only is it entirely inapt in these particular cases, it threatens to divert attention from a far more serious problem that is literally a threat to our system of democracy (and no, I am not being hyperbolic). To begin with, reducing the size of government would have had no impact on these cases. In the IRS case, the evidence in the New York Times reporting suggests that the problem was a severely understaffed regional office populated by under-qualified employees who were not prepared for the flood of 501(c)(4) applications that came their way, and they thus came up with the highly problematic solution of coming up with a shortcut to isolate applications from groups that they suspected were not truly socially welfare oriented. There is no evidence to date that this was a result of political pressure from above, and in fact the IRS is made up career bureaucrats who work there for years, so it would be odd to suggest that somehow the IRS is populated with partisan liberal Democrats going on witch hunts. Rather than big government being the problem here, the truth is the opposite; were the IRS sufficiently funded and staffed, applications could actually be considered properly rather than be subjected to shortcuts designed to manage an unmanageable workload in a timely fashion. (Full disclaimer here: I work for an organization whose tax-exempt status is right now under consideration by the IRS, and I am furious that it will likely be delayed even further now due to the political uproar taking place.)
Let’s move on to the AP scandal, which is actually a much bigger deal. In this case, the DOJ went on a fishing expedition to determine who leaked information to the AP after the national security threat had passed. In other words, the White House was mad that the information was going to come out at all, and so it engaged in massive overreach in trying to find out who the leaker was in targeting phone records that were likely to be outside the narrow scope that the law permits. Furthermore, the government did not even ask the AP to comply with a request for the records before subpoenaing them, which to me says that it knew that its actions were way over the line of what is reasonable. Now, in this case as well, the problem is not a government that is too big. DOJ does not require massive amounts of funding or personnel to improperly subpoena phone records. The AP case does, however, illuminate the true problem, which is not how big the government is, but what power we allow it to acquire. The AP case is not the only one in the news involving government investigations of leaks. Fox News reporters James Rosen, who reported classified information that he was leaked about North Korea, had his work and personal phone records seized, his work and personal emails searched, his visits to the State Department tracked, and even his parents’ phone records were seized. Perhaps this is not overzealous behavior given that Rosen’s reporting may have put rare intelligence assets in North Korea at risk and so finding the leaker was of paramount importance. I am open to this argument despite having my doubts as to the necessity of casting such a wide net. But even granting that is the case, the government went one step further, and actually named Rosen in a court affidavit as a “an aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator.” Placing a reporter who benefits from a leak in one of these categories is literally unprecedented in American history, and if you don’t think this is a big deal that leads to a very slippery slope, then all I can say is that you are simply not paying close enough attention.
For those keeping score at home, the Obama administration has now been the first to claim the right of the government to kill an American citizen without sufficient due process of law by any reasonable definition of the term, and also the first to identify a reporter doing his First Amendment-protected job as a criminal co-conspirator. Neither of these two things have anything at all to do with the size of the government, and everything to do with the powers that we accord the government – or, more accurately in this case, the powers that the government claims unopposed. I frequently take to Twitter, as I did last week, to make a variation of the following point, which is that I do not understand how more people are not up in arms about this, and particularly Democrats. Every single datapoint from political theory and history demonstrates that once the government gains the power to do something, it never gives it back. Are we supposed to trust the White House on these issues because Obama campaigned on maintaining civil liberties despite the national security challenges the country faces, or because he gave a nice speech in 2009 at the National Archives claiming that we did not have to make any trade-offs between security and freedom? While talking the talk, the government has claimed powers under his watch that not even Bush and Cheney asserted that they had. I shudder to think of what the next administration will do given the precedents set by this one, and if you don’t think that the White House knows what a problem this is, recall that a year ago they were frantically trying to set down written legal guidelines (which so far do not exist) for the drone war since they realized how out of control things might become with a potential Romney administration.
The idea that we should trust Obama on these issues because he is a Democrat is ridiculous, and in fact it should make people even more outraged and even more willing to scream and yell and pressure the administration. I keep on waiting and waiting for someone other than Rand Paul to start raising these issues, and it is high time that Democrats do so, because before you know it, the government is going to start claiming powers in the interest of national security that are even more expansive and wider in scope. That may be fine for some people while Obama is in the White House, although I don’t quite understand why, but remember that government powers once claimed live on forever no matter how big or small that government is, and pretty soon someone else is going to be sitting in the Oval Office. Please watch Obama’s speech tomorrow that is supposed to serve as a bookend to his 2009 speech and listen carefully to what he has to say, because anything short of a repudiation of what has gone on under his gaze should be considered unacceptable.
For years I told students that the prime directive of any government – liberal, conservative, democratic, autocratic, whatever – is to defend and increase its power. Obama is certainly demonstrating this, but many of his passionate supporters simply cannot accept that their man of hope is acting just like the rest of them – or worse.