Obama's Brief

05/22/2013 09:38 am ET Updated Jul 22, 2013
US President Barack Obama listens during a meeting with President Thein Sein of Myanmar in the Oval Office of the White House
US President Barack Obama listens during a meeting with President Thein Sein of Myanmar in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, May 20, 2013. Thein Sein becomes the first leader of Myanmar to visit the White House in nearly half a century, as Washington offers a strong symbolic gesture to back his reforms. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

The president is either moping or muttering defensively about the abuses by the IRS and the tragedy of Benghazi. And to mollify the media about the alleged overreach of capturing the AP's phone records, he has offered to promote a legal shield for the media. As I see it, if he wakes up tomorrow and is willing to speak up, there are a few things he could fairly state.

First, any suggestion that "the IRS" went after the Tea Party are bogus. The IRS has hundreds of offices, with branches in all fifty states and in scores of cities. Only one of them, in one city (the Cincinnati office), is charged with having targeted the Tea Party and other conservative groups. Moreover, the screening began in the spring of 2010 when that IRS office and others were flooded with applications for tax exempt status from these groups. There was not such flood from the left. Further, the IRS office in Cincinnati was understaffed -- because Congress had not provided the IRS with sufficient funds to properly staff it. And the Cincinnati branch's focus on the new applicants seems to be particularly justified given that some of the groups that came under scrutiny considered the federal income tax, administered by the IRS, to be unconstitutional. As to the question of when the White House first heard about what was going on, this is the wrong question. Rather, the important question is when the investigation conducted by the Inspector General was concluded, which was last Wednesday, May 15. Any White House action before this would have been fairly criticized as interfering in the investigation. Next question.

As far as the Associated Press is concerned, the press claims the authorities need not worry because the media has been acting responsibly and publishing only news that -- in the judgment of its editors -- is safe to publish. Such claims disregard that more and more the media -- including the various blogs -- show very few signs of editorial responsibility. To remind: after the Boston bombing CNN and the New York Post published names and pictures of alleged bombers that turned out to be innocent people. As we know from the case of Richard Jewell, who was wrongly suspected of setting off a bomb during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and whose name was leaked to the media, false reports can cause a great deal of harm even if corrections are later published. Irresponsible reporting can be even more damaging when it outs undercover operatives. In 1975, for example, a newspaper published the names of dozens of active CIA officers, and shortly thereafter, an agent stationed in Athens was shot dead.

Though the AP has not caused the death of an agent, it has compromised important security efforts intended to save the lives of innocent civilians. In 2012, the Associated Press, against the pleas of the White House and the CIA, published leaked information about a British agent who successfully embedded himself in Al Qaeda and thwarted plot to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner. By blowing the cover of this agent, the AP prevented the U.S. and the U.K. from using him to stop other attacks.

Other democracies deal with such leaks via the enforcement of state secrets acts that ban not merely state officials from disclosing secrets but also the media from publishing them, if they somehow get hold of such sensitive information. As I see it, calling on Congress to adopt such a law of is too big of a leap, even if the press was afforded legal protection in cases where it could show that the government wanted the leaked information kept secret not for security reasons but to avoid embarrassment. However, although the government cannot prevent the publication of the information (it would constitute a major infringement of the First Amendment), it is entitled to find out who leaked it, in violation of the law. Civil libertarians claim that such a policy would "chill" future sources from disclosing secret information to the media. Well, this is exactly what is called for, when the information being leaked includes legitimate secrets pertaining to matters of national security, such as the presence of embedded agents in Al Qaeda or the names of CIA agents in the field.

Benghazi was a tragedy that should have been avoided. Many things went wrong, as has become increasingly clear from the reports that have surfaced. A major reason for the security failure, as it turns out, is that Congress had refused to provide the funds needed to enhance the security of the U.S. outpost in Benghazi and for expanding the security forces that protect embassies.

President Obama on Thursday will deliver a speech at the National Defense University, in which he is expected to continue his defensive efforts. This time he is expected to reveal the ways in which he will make the drone program more transparent, promise to move most or all of the parts run by the CIA to the less-secretive military, and increase Congressional oversight. Meanwhile he has greatly cut back the program: there have only been 12 drone strikes in Pakistan this year, compared to many scores in previous ones, with similarly sharp cut backs in other regions such as Yemen.

As I see it, gaining new Congressional authorization for the use of force, especially in the new parts of the world that terrorists are now using as their staging grounds -- for instance in Mali -- would be a step in the right direction. And forming a drone court, like the FISA court, to review which terrorists are to be put on the kill list, is a wise idea. However, greatly curtailing the program before anybody has come up with another way of dealing with terrorists in places they cannot be captured and hauled to court is too much of a retreat.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of International Relations at the George Washington University and the author of over twenty books, most recently Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human Rights World.