They say nobody can survive a scandal in Washington during the summer months. It's "quiet time" in the nation's capital, legislators are back home, pending legislation collects dust, and there is nothing as dangerous as a restless reporter in search of a good story.
By now, everybody knows that there are two major manufactured scandals buzzing around Washington. The first addresses the tragedy that took the lives of four State Department employees, including the U.S. ambassador Chris Smith at the Benghazi consulate. The second appears to be a growing cloud of scandal where civil service employees at the IRS allegedly focused on Tea Party groups when applying for their non-profit 501-c-4.
However, a third real scandal lurks in the shadows.
By now, we all know the basic outlines of Benghazi tragedy. The consulate found itself under attack on the anniversary of 9/11. Ambassador Smith and his team were overrun by demonstrators. Four died, including the ambassador, and 10 others were injured. At first, the talking points echoed by UN Ambassador Susan Rice stated that it did appear that this was the result of spontaneous demonstrations. While it was probably clear that there were aspects to the demonstration that were spontaneous, it appears that further discussion concluded there was some homegrown al-Qaeda activity.
Those who tried to make hay of this tragedy have paid dearly. It may have cost Mitt Romney the election when he tried to make this a campaign attack point during the second debate. He had his head handed to him by both President Obama and the moderator.
Here is what is really going on. Going into the next Democratic presidential primary cycle, former Senator and Secretary of state Hillary Clinton is the front-runner for the nomination. Republicans are hoping to muddy her chances. By politicizing a foreign policy tragedy, they hope to make it harder for Clinton in the primaries or the general election. As we speak, House Oversight Chairman Darrel Issa (D-CA) has been trying to paint Hillary Clinton into a corner. The great majority sees it for what it is -- political theater.
The second scandal, allegations that the IRS carefully scrutinized conservative tea party requests for their 501-c-4 nonprofit statuses, dovetails perfectly into the paranoid mindset of those on the Far Right. It's a readymade tempest that dovetails into every Tea Partier's paranoid conspiratorial fantasies, not unlike the latest rant from nutbag like Tea Party talk show host Alex Jones, who believes that President Obama was behind the recent "killer tornados" in Oklahoma.
Here is what is really going on. What happened at the IRS is probably no different than when low-level employees at credit card companies were caught snooping through the spending data of movie stars or hospital technicians in Los Angeles who sold medical records of celebrities to the tabloids. When this bad behavior came to light, people were fired, prosecuted, and procedures surrounding data collection were tightened.
But in a world of manufactured scandal, this one will have legs over the long haul. So long as Republicans control congress, there will be hearings, hearings, and more hearings.
Once upon a time, politicians used various parts of the government to silence their critics. Tax returns were often used to gum up an opponent's life. People forget that J. Edgar Hoover's longevity as FBI Director came from currying favor with politicians by sharing the secret files with their opponents. Hoover would often turn the screw on these leaders and remind these politicians what he had on them. Every president wanted to get rid of Hoover, but few had any leverage. Nixon ended up appointing him for life, something only a high power could end when he died in 1971. In that sense, J. Edgar Hoover was fire-proof.
Richard Nixon then marshaled the full power of the Executive Branch to get back at his enemies, both real and imagined. Nixon went so far to have Chuck Colson create his famous "enemies list." To the White House, that meant that you would live under a constant cloud of harassment. If you were Katherine Graham and you owned a television station as part of your Washington Post holdings, look for rough waters when your broadcast license came up for review. If you were outspoken like John Lennon, and wanted your Green Card, deportation was always the wolf at the door. If you were Dan Ellsberg, and leaked The Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and Washington Post, it meant that your psychiatrist would earn an illegal break-in from the White House Plumbers unit.
However, if Barack Obama hinted at any of those, he would be quickly shown the door.
We live in times of the Scandal Industrial Complex, where little pebbles of little screw-ups become magnified into words that inevitably end with "gate;" BillyGate, IranContra-gate, and MonicaGate. Because basic cable is reactive by nature, the talking heads now have something to discuss and they recycle it endlessly throughout the news day. There is an industry of lawyers, PR flaks, and other functionaries who have made a nice living from doing this.
What was found with MonicaGate? Taxpayers spent $40 million to look for Clinton's failed Whitewater land deal but Ken Starr ended up writing a flaccid soft porn narrative about oral sex. The real scandal there is that it was allowed to continue, but Bill Clinton later emerged as a global rock star, and Ken Starr became a trivia question.
However, there is a real scandal brewing in open view and in plain sight. Yet, the national debate remains shrouded in shadow conversations. Should the United States be able to target our citizens overseas -- those who may violently disagree with us -- with drone warfare? There are some basic questions of due process that are conveniently sidestepped because the explosive nature of this argument takes place in faraway locales.
I lost an acquaintance on 9/11 so I can understand the desire to take an extrajudicial approach to apprehend or even kill those who promise harm. I want the government to keep safe from all enemies, foreign and domestic.
However, we believe we do things better in the United States; it is part of what makes our country unique. Even during the worst of times, the constitution is never locked up and put away on ice for safekeeping. When we make terrible mistakes, like placing American citizens of Japanese descent into internment camps during World War II or enslaving human beings based on skin color, we try to fix the wrong even if it's years afterward.
We can sit here and reassure ourselves that those killed are bad people but doesn't American citizenship extend beyond our borders when we target our own? Nobody is charged, tried, or even convicted in absentia. There is no second track of due process for those Americans who fall on to this list. There is only a list created by various intelligence services and approved by the president. We hope that there are solid metrics involved for inclusion today, but we can never be sure about tomorrow.
We had better figure out a way to take the high road or else the potential for blowback could be devastating.