As the IRS Scandal Goes Down in Flames, An Important Lesson for the NSA Story

So it appears as if the so-called IRS scandal has finally evaporated into nothingness. The central claim in this non-scandal was specifically that the IRS had been unfairly and exclusively targeting conservative tea party groups and, it was assumed, rejecting the 501(c)4 applications filed by those groups. The immediate analysis was that President Obama had grossly abused the mighty federal government as a means of political retribution. Calls for impeachment ensued, and a congressional investigation was launched by Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Yesterday, however, we received further confirmation via a document published by the AP that the IRS was also scrutinizing left-wing 501(c)4 groups using “be on the lookout” (BOLO) terms like “progressive,” “Occupy,” “Medical Marijuana,” “occupied territory advocacy,” “Green Energy Organizations” and “Healthcare legislation.” We also learned that the IRS used BOLOs to target newspapers that applied for non-profit status as educational publications.

Come to think of it, we’ve kind of known since the beginning that liberal groups were also examined and rejected for non-profit status. Back when the scandal originally broke, Bloomberg reported that at least three liberal groups were scrutinized, and two of the groups were denied tax exempt status. Later, we discovered that out of 176 organizations that were granted tax exempt status in 2010, 122 were conservative and 48 were liberal/non-conservative. In other words, more than twice as many conservative groups were approved over liberal groups.

We’ve been aware of these massive gaps in the integrity of the story because many of us asked very serious questions from the beginning. We endeavored to discover how the IRS handles non-profit applications, what events and decisions created the influx of 501(c)4 groups and whether the scrutiny was a matter of routine or if politics skewed the process.

While some of us were asking questions, the Republican Party, led by the conservative entertainment complex, blindly lost its collective shpadoinkle and engaged in histrionics that almost entirely superseded its histrionics over the Benghazi non-scandal.

There’s a valuable lesson here, one that ought to be considered in the context of the NSA story.

Tell me if this sounds familiar.

Conservatives insisted that there was systemic wrongdoing inside the Obama White House extending deep within the IRS: a colossal and intrusive bureaucratic kaiju monster that holds a vice-grip on the throats of freedom-loving citizens. The president himself was the man-in-the-rubber-Godzilla-suit crushing free speech under the heft of his unchecked executive power. Conservative fire-eaters like Glenn Beck, whose 9/12 group was one of the BOLO terms, became instant martyrs whose basic constitutional rights were being trampled (Beck’s free speech has only been silenced by his paralyzed vocal cords). And all preconceived notions about big, bad government were officially vindicated.

We were told that this scandal might be the one that’ll stick to the wall. It could be Obama’s mandatory second term scandal involving a special prosecutor, building into an eventual impeachment trial. Game over, man.

None of that happened.

One of my main concerns about the NSA story is entirely driven by the lessons of the IRS story. Not every screamer headline that pops up in your Twitter feed is worthy of a permanent, unwavering red-alert — not until we ask serious questions and commit ourselves to learning about everything that orbits around it. My concern is that there continues to be an unhinged stampede to judgment without knowing exactly what’s going on, and, in the melee, we risk falling into a similar trap that ensnared and embarrassed the Republicans on the IRS story.

And so I have a lot of questions. We all should. I’m also hesitant (clearly) to jump aboard the outrage zeppelin out of a legitimate concern that it could be the Hindenburg. By the same token, too many otherwise smart people have accepted every detail, even the peculiar and questionable ones, at face value, while refusing to acknowledge both new and old information alike. They’re taking it as a matter of faith, too, that the outcome will be a positive one for the cause of transparency and civil liberties.

But an unintended consequence of how this story was handled could be that the NSA will become even more opaque and restrictive. Post-Snowden, does anyone honestly believe the NSA will make it easier for analysts to attain and leak classified documents to the press?

In this sense, the way the story was handled could actually contravene the effort to check the NSA — and especially to weed out any potential wrongdoing in the future. Sure, we might learn something more about the nuts-and-bolts of the NSA’s operations, but isn’t that like winning a battle but losing the war?

At some point, the repetitive outrage could become the boy who cried wolf. It already has with the Republicans who are convinced that every presidential fart is an impeachment-worthy trespass. After the monstrous IRS-gate turned out to be a great big Nothing-gate, I doubt anyone will take the Republicans seriously the next time they cry scandal.

If it’s not too late already, the left could fall prey to a similar fate.

If I were to define the central motivation for why I’m covering this story so extensively it’d be this one: I don’t want the left to descend into a liberal version of the tea party, possessed by zeal above all else, and an exuberant willingness to nihilistically burn down the village in order to save it. However, if the left can approach these issues with thoughtfulness, smart accountability, pragmatism and laser-accuracy, it’ll avoid that fate and progressive legislation will slowly but surely win the day. But if it becomes increasingly guided by kneejerk screeching and flailing carelessness, it’ll simply de-evolve into an incoherent, self-defeating mess. These issues, including and especially the effort to roll back the national security excesses of the post-9/11 era, are too important to be sacrificed upon the altar of derangement.

Bob Cesca is the managing editor for The Daily Banter, the editor of, the host of the Bubble Genius Bob & Chez Show podcast and a Huffington Post contributor.

Bob Cesca is the host of the Bob Cesca Show podcast, a twice weekly political talk show. He’s also a contributor to Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.