Heavy hand of the state


Former Irish Times editor Geraldine Kennedy and Bruce Arnold successfully sued the State over the bugging of their phones back in 1983, winning strong assertions of their right to privacy. It had been justified by the Haughey government as necessary to track down Cabinet leaks. Now the US Department of Justice has brought such practices to new heights with an admission it has tapped not two journalists’ phones, but phone lines used by up to 100 in the Associated Press (AP) agency.

Coincidentally – or perhaps not – the AP story has broken alongside accounts of another episode of worrying state intrusion, revelations that the US tax authorities (the IRS) targeted Tea Party-linked “charities” for particular scrutiny. They were entitled to charitable status if engaged in welfare, but not if campaigning politically. President Obama described the targeting as “outrageous” and has sacked Steven Miller, the acting IRS head, but strenuously defended the AP taps on national security grounds.

In truth, it was no less egregious, a fishing expedition intended as much to intimidate journalists or potential sources as to secure information. It represented a disproportionate erosion of the right of the press to protect sources, a key pillar of the constitutional protection of freedom of expression, as the Irish Supreme Court has acknowledged in the more recent case involving Ms Kennedy and tribunal leaks.

The leak in question, about the foiling of a terrorist plot in Yemen a year ago, “put the American people at risk”, Attorney General Eric Holder insists. It appears to have involved the revelation that the intended bomber of an aircraft was a US double agent. But AP had already agreed to hold the story until security concerns had passed and the agent was safely back in the US.

So far the administration has managed to distance itself from the IRS targeting of Tea Party groups, plausibly claiming that it was an initiative out of the Cincinnati office unsanctioned even by the IRS head office. That has not stopped several congressional committees from beginning investigations into when and how the White House heard about the story.

The dubious charitable status of quite a number of politically associated groups, on the right and left, had become a matter of debate, and an appropriate matter for IRS investigation. If done on a non-partisan basis. In 2011, when the head of the IRS tax-exempt division, Lois Lerner, heard about Tea Party applicants being singled out, she ordered that the focus be broadened to all political or lobbying organisations seeking such an exemption. Cincinnati appears not to have got the message.

Fairly or unfairly, the president will inevitably be tarnished by both sagas. They feed potently into fears eagerly played on by libertarians and Republicans that an all-powerful state needs to be reined in. Obama’s Achilles heel.