It's time for a special prosecutor

Have we reached the point where in previous scandal-plagued administrations Congress called for the appointment of an independent counsel?
Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

SHREVEPORT, La., May 17, 2013 ― Out here in the coffee shops and social media enclaves of regular America you can feel that the mood has shifted. Even Democratic stalwarts who once stood up in defense of the Obama administration realize that too many questions have been raised and too many lines have been crossed for business as usual to continue. The public mood has turned against the administration and we have reached the point where in previous scandal-plagued administrations, Congress called for the appointment of an independent counsel.

During the Nixon administration it took more than one crime to bring down the president and his henchmen. It took multiple break-ins, wiretaps, threats against journalists, financial crimes and a coverup to finally bring the administration down. But most importantly it took a shift in the public mood and the alienation of the media to create an environment where the president and top members of the administration were vulnerable.

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Up until the last couple of weeks it appeared that the Obama administration had only committed Reagan-level transgressions. Fast and Furious fit in the category of a scandal like Iran-Contra: embarrassing, but survivable. Bengazi was worse ― American officials died ― but it fit in the general category of the truck bombing of the embassy in Lebanon: regrettable, embarrassing, but if Reagan could survive these crises, so could Obama.

Lesser scandals, like murdering U.S. citizens with drones, fit in the “it can’t happen here category” and are barely a blip on the radar.

Reagan and Clinton both proved that a president can get away with an awful lot. Nixon showed us what you can’t get away with. What really alienates the people is behaving like a tyrant and persecuting people for purely political purposes. You get in trouble when you cross the line where people begin to identify with the victims and say “hey, this could happen to me.” It was the wiretaps of journalists and political opponents, the hit lists and the persecution of journalists which really brought Nixon down. His other crimes were more serious, but these actions were more damaging.

Obama is in that same position, worse in some ways. Everyone hates and fears the IRS. To use it as the instrument of persecution of your political enemies is something which strikes home with every taxpayer in the nation. It’s inherently unfair and destroys the illusion of neutrality which limits public objections to the tax system. It triggers the dangerous “if he can do it to them he can do it to me” reaction which gives people a personal stake in settling accounts with the president. The power to tax is the power to destroy, and using that power for partisan purposes crosses a very dangerous line.

SEE RELATED: IRS scandal reveals Obama’s fake accountability

As has become very clear in other crises that as long as you have the press on your side, you can get away with just about anything. Nixon lost the press and very soon thereafter he lost his job. When your presidency is already plagued by scandal, keeping on the good side of a press which is already inclined to be fawningly partisan is a very good idea. Wiretapping journalists, even legally, is an extremely bad idea. If there’s one thing that will turn the press against you, it’s violating their civil liberties.

The Associated Press phone-records scandal isn’t really going to go anywhere. There’s an acceptable scapegoat in Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who will get all the blame for a “rogue operation.” But the damage is done. Journalists now realize that when it comes to pursuing his political goals, they are no more important to Obama than the “teabaggers” they scoff at. Once tyranny becomes the policy of the state, it knows no rational limits and no one is part of a protected class.

The IRS scandal has cost the administration a lot of public support and has even made Democrats start to question Obama. If the AP scandal has alienated the press, then the umbrella of protection that the press provides to keep other scandals off the map disappears. Suddenly minor scandals become major and former allies are out for blood.

In this environment, the Republican dominated House of Representatives suddenly comes into its own, because with less hostility from the press and less resistance from Democrats, the door is open for them to hold hearings and pursue the measures at their command to hold the administration accountable. First among these is the appointment of an independent counsel to carry out a thorough investigation of the administration.

Independent counsels are lawyers from outside the government brought in to depoliticize the process of investigating members of the government. It would be appropriate for a Republican Congress to employ one to make sure that an investigation of a Democrat administration was as impartial as possible. You can only get so far with hearings. When they are one party against another, they start to look like a witch hunt. The answer to that is an independent counsel with broad powers and the backing of Congress to subpoena everyone from lowly IRS auditors to the Attorney General to get to the bottom of these scandals.

The history of special prosecutors and independent counsels has been fairly good. Whether they come from an academic background like Archibald Cox or are successful prosecutors like Patrick Fitzgerald, they seem to be very good at getting to the bottom of a situation and cutting through the bombast and pontification which tends to plague congressional hearings.

We have reached the point where the magnitude of concerns and the large number of scandals facing the current administration demands a higher level of scrutiny. If we are to move forward and pursue the accountability which the people are demanding, it’s time for an independent counsel.

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Dave Nalle

Dave Nalle has been writing political analysis since the 1980s for newspapers, magazines and now online journals. He is currently Execitive Director of the Center for Foreign Policy Priorities, is on the board of the Coalition to Reduce Spending, and served four years as National Chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus.

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