Big Government Loses Control

Technology is finally doing to big government what it has done to big business, big media and other institutions. The government is losing the ability to manipulate information to avoid accountability. The IRS scandal has become the latest scandal and the tea party and others groups used social media to spread the news world-wide.

By L. GORDON CROVITZ
May 19, 2013, 6:01 p.m. ET
Wall Street Journal

What to make of the political scandals that are dominating the headlines and forcing the Obama administration into Nixonian damage control? Technology is finally doing to big government what it has done to big business, big media and other institutions that once could operate with nearly full control over information. The government is losing the ability to manipulate information to avoid accountability.

Consider how the news broke that the Internal Revenue Service has been targeting conservative groups. The admission by IRS official Lois Lerner came in response to a question from the audience at a low-profile meeting of the tax section of the American Bar Association. For a week, perplexed reporters quoted her supporters saying she was apolitical and must not have meant to make news this way.

Then reports online cited lawyers who had been at the ABA event saying they saw her consult prepared remarks as she answered the supposedly impromptu question. On Friday, the acting IRS commissioner confessed to Congress that the question was planted. Its purpose was to give Ms. Lerner a chance to minimize IRS wrongdoing before the release of the Treasury inspector general's report early last week.

The attempt to spin the story worked for a time. Ms. Lerner blamed everything on low-level IRS employees in the Cincinnati office and said that the targeting of conservative groups ended when higher-ups learned about it. But as targeted groups went online to reveal the communications they had received from numerous IRS offices, it became clear that abuses were widespread, including at headquarters, and that the targeting went on for years.

There is a long history of presidents using the IRS against political enemies. FDR went after newspapers that opposed the New Deal. JFK had his Ideological Organizations Audit Project target conservative groups like the American Enterprise Institute. Richard Nixon used the IRS to harass people on his enemies list.

Most of these abuses came to light only after the presidents left office. President Obama has to deal with the issue now because tea party and other groups used social media to share information about their experiences with the IRS.

Details also emerged this month about the Obama administration's efforts to spin last year's Benghazi attack. The White House was forced to release 100 pages of emails showing how "talking points" about the attack were edited to exclude references to al Qaeda. That set the stage for Mr. Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to spend two weeks falsely blaming an anti-Muslim video.

The emails detailed a dozen changes to the talking points, including eliminating a key CIA observation from the original draft: "We do know that Islamic extremists with ties to al Qaeda participated in this attack." The emails disclosed how Mrs. Clinton's spokesman Victoria Nuland successfully lobbied to excise earlier CIA warnings of terrorism in Benghazi. She emailed that this "could be used by Members [of Congress] to beat the State Department for not paying attention to Agency warnings so why do we want to feed that? Concerned."

Just as old media learned it is no longer the only voice heard in a new-media world, government spinners now must reckon that the truth will eventually come out—sometimes because the government is pressured to disclose damning internal emails.

The third scandal dogging the Obama administration also has its roots in trying to downplay terrorist threats. The Associated Press reported in May 2012 that the CIA had stopped another attempt by an al Qaeda group in Yemen to have an underwear bomber blow up a U.S. passenger airplane. That contradicted administration claims that there were no known terror threats. A federal prosecutor trying to find the source of the leak seized phone records of dozens of AP editors and reporters from a two-month period last year, ignoring Justice Department guidelines that the AP at least be told in advance that the government is trolling its records.

As the nation's chief executive, President Obama is accountable for the IRS, State Department and Justice Department. His longtime adviser David Axelrod last week blamed a too-big government for the scandals: "Part of being president is that there's so much beneath you that you can't know because the government is so vast."

Messrs. Obama and Axelrod helped create that problem, but the argument against big government rings especially true in an era when not even the government can control information.

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