THE Obama administration trembled beneath the weight of scandal this week. Three shocking revelations saw a President who once promised hope and change compared instead to the disgraced Richard Nixon.
Nixon’s enemies list, which singled out opponents for aggressive audits, was evoked as US tax collection agency the IRS admitted subjecting groups campaigning for limited government – America’s founding principle – to extra scrutiny. While no link to the White House has been established, it came in the run-up to the last presidential election and may have helped clear Obama’s path back to the White House by hampering the ability of his opponents to organise.
The official narrative over the 2012 attack on the US embassy in Benghazi also began to unravel. Emails revealed a politicised rewriting of CIA talking points before distribution, something White House press secretary Jay Carney and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton had denied. The rewrites helped obscure both that the event was a terrorist attack with al Qaeda involvement and that the CIA had given warning of the likelihood of such attacks.
These abuses of power are disgraceful. But the scandal I find most chilling involves my own profession. The Department of Justice secretly obtained two months of call details from the Associated Press newsroom, breaking a sacred trust by allowing the department to identify journalists’ confidential sources.
I have just finished watching the last season of The Wire, an extraordinary televisual novel set against the drug war in Baltimore. In one scene the police go to a judge for permission to tap the phones of the Baltimore Sun newsroom. They get turned down flat. The Wire is a tale of corruption, where cops, politicians and the justice system are as crooked as the dealers they fight. But this intrusion was considered too outrageous even for fiction.
Obama once said his favourite character in The Wire was Omar Little, the lone gunman who pursues his own twisted code of honour through the wilderness of Baltimore’s corners. But these scandals show he learned little from the show, which over five seasons explores the evil common to all top-down systems of power – his government included.
The dangers of power led America’s founders to establish a limited government. These days that kind of talk gets you special attention from the taxman. In seeking no limits to his crusading reach, Obama opened the door to such abuses of office.
A better hero for Obama would be Bubbles, The Wire’s recovering heroin abuser. Bubbles has the hard-won self-knowledge of the addict. He knows the destructive temptation, understands his limited power to control himself and the need for institutions to constrain his worst tendencies. For Bubbles, that means attending regular addiction meetings. For American politicians, it ought to mean observing due process and constitutional limits.
Politicians intoxicated with their own sense of mission, who lose respect for the poisonous nature of power, are a danger to the public.