New IRS Scandal Echoes a Long History of Political Harassment

While targeting conservative groups may be outrageous, politically motivated audits by the IRS are far from unusual.

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U.S. President Richard Nixon stands on the steps of the presidential helicopter after resigning the presidency, in Washington, D.C., on August 9, 1974.
David Hume Kennerly / Getty Images

U.S. President Richard Nixon on the steps of the presidential helicopter after resigning the presidency, in Washington, D.C., on August 9, 1974.

President Obama expressed anger Monday at recent revelations that the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative non-profit groups for increased scrutiny during his first term. “If you have the IRS operating in anything less than a neutral and nonpartisan way, then that is outrageous,” Obama said. “It is contrary to our traditions.”

By traditions, he presumably meant the nation’s laws, which for decades have held that the federal government cannot target specific groups or individuals for tax enforcement without cause. But the IRS has a long history of disregarding this tradition.

For much of the post-war period, the agency has failed to meet its mission of neutrality, bowing to political pressure and resisting repeated attempts at internal reforms. On multiple occasions, it has become embroiled in scandal due to exactly the sort of behavior that senior IRS officials now admit occurred between 2010 and 2012.

(MORE: The Real IRS Scandal)

John F. Kennedy sanctioned an “Ideological Organizations Project” at the IRS that investigated right-wing groups. President Richard Nixon encouraged a secret IRS program called the “Special Services Staff” to investigate his political opponents and harass them with audits. And presidents weren’t the only offenders; the FBI has long used the IRS to harass political opponents. A 1964 FBI plan to “discredit” the United Klans of America called for illegally disclosing tax information about key members. Around the same time, the FBI initiated an IRS audit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his non-profit organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. One memo even suggested the bureau forge letters from King to donors of the group that warned of the ongoing IRS investigations, in the hopes of cutting off the group’s cash flow.

Some of the most egregious abuses of the last 50 years were undertaken at the behest of the FBI, sometimes under the cover of a secret domestic counterintelligence program called COINTELPRO. In May 1968, a memo was sent to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. “The New Left on many occasions viciously and scurrilously attacked the Director and the Bureau,” the FBI memo read, according to the Church Committee report, a 1976 Senate investigation on U.S. intelligence abuses. The next day, Hoover authorized a new program to “expose, disrupt and otherwise neutralize” groups and individuals on the left, in part by employing the IRS as a weapon in the secret federal campaign.

Within a year, the FBI had directed the IRS to open investigations on 35 activists suspected of not filing tax returns. An FBI memo from that August of 1968 called for an IRS audit of a university professor suspected of planning protests to disrupt the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The FBI hoped that the paperwork demands of an audit “may be a source of distraction during the critical period when he is engaged in meetings and plans for disruption of the Democratic National Convention.”

The Church Committee also found that between 1966 and 1974, the FBI obtained about 200 tax returns from the IRS. Of that group, most were for domestic intelligence investigations, largely of black nationalists and anti-Vietnam War activists. In 1968, the IRS program of cooperating with the FBI without asking questions was deemed “illegal” by a senior IRS official, though abuses continued despite the call for internal reforms.

(MORE: Joe Klein: IRS Scandal Means More Washington Gridlock)

By early 1969, the misuse of the IRS had moved inside the White House. Tom Charles Huston, an aide to President Nixon, recommended using the IRS to examine left-wing tax-exempt organizations to make sure they were complying with the law. Nixon agreed. Five years later, the House of Representatives drew up articles of impeachment against Nixon, alleging, among other offenses, that the President had used the IRS improperly. “He has, acting personally and through his subordinates and agents, endeavored to obtain from the Internal Revenue Service, in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens, confidential information contained in income tax returns for purposed not authorized by law, and to cause, in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens, income tax audits or other income tax investigations to be initiated or conducted in a discriminatory manner,” the document read.

Allegations of political bias have continued to dog the agency in the decades since. Officials at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People claimed the IRS unfairly targeted the group for an audit in the 2004 election cycle to discourage political activity. In the 1990s, conservative non-profits alleged similar targeting by the Clinton Administration. An investigation into the 1993 firing of seven employees in the White House travel office found that an associate White House counsel had spoken of requesting guidance from the IRS about the conduct of the department. Days after the workers were fired, IRS agents visited UltrAir, the airline that handled most White House press travel.

Questions have also been raised about whether the agency targets its audits to avoid complicating the lives of Presidents and key members of Congress. A 2001 empirical study of IRS audits published in the Economics and Politics journal found a clear pattern in audits between 1992 and 1997: “Other things being the same,” the authors wrote, “the percentage of tax returns audited by the IRS is markedly lower in states that are important to the sitting president’s re-election aspirations. We also find that the IRS is responsive to its oversight committees.”

The current scandal is alleged to have involved only low-level officials. The IRS claims that the inappropriate targeting of conservative groups resulted from an effort to “centralize work and assign cases to designated employees in an effort to promote consistency and quality,” according to an IRS statement. But the investigations are just now beginning. The IRS Inspector General is expected to release a report this week. House Republicans have pledged further probes. The full chain of accountability has yet to be determined. And while it may be “outrageous,” as Obama put it, politically motivated audits by the IRS are far from unusual.

MORE: Mister Taxman: Why Some Americans Working Abroad are Ditching Their Citizenships

38 comments
StacyHackney
StacyHackney

I have been targeted/harassed by American anti-terrorist agencies/local police for many years because I spoke out against the Iraq War. I am trying to reach Norway where I will apply for political asylum. If I get there, I will write a book detailing the many entrapment attempts and psychological and physical assaults made against me. I have set up an indiegogo page called "Seeking Political Asylum in Norway." I would appreciate any donations. If ordinary citizens don't stand up against governmental abuse, various uber powerful agencies will grow beyond the American citizen's ability to impact. Thank you. Stacy Hackney. 0stacyhackney0@gmail.com

jediwoman
jediwoman

Left wing groups have been targeted for years. As recently as 2004 the NAACP was being harassed for their views. Also ACORN - which, by the way was vindicated of any wrongdoing but nevertheless destroyed by conservative instigated scrutiny. For some reason, that's acceptable, while scrutiny of the Tea Party is not? OK. We (on the left) have put up with it for years - often spurred on by conservatives themselves. It is a little ironic that now they are in the cross hairs they are suddenly considered victims. Let's be fair here.

Why was it OK that anyone who protested the Viet Nam War ended up with an FBI file? Back then it was a given, and, to my knowledge, conservatives never spoke out about that clear violation of OUR 1st Amendment Rights.  

Lastly. the most salient threat of domestic terrorism comes not from Muslims but from right wing militia groups. Of course the IRS is going to flag groups that could be tied with extremists. At least that was the traditional excuse laid on left wing peace activists since I can recall. 

Conservatives complaining about government scrutiny is a little like pot calling the kettle black.

dlkaijala
dlkaijala

Until now, it seems like the 60s was the worst time of misuse of IRS power.  We survived the 60s.  We will probably survive this.  Call me an optimist.  Good article.  

arrestforcefeeders
arrestforcefeeders

immediatly fire: irs workers who: against the rules of the irs, discriminated agianst people based on their political status and asked unnessicary questions in applications, witnessed misconduct and dispite being able to didnt report or fire misconductors, ordered/directed irs-workers to commit misconduct. charge misconductors a refund of wages from date of misconduct to date of fire. charge irs workers who agianst the rules of the irs, exsessivly delyed tax-exempt status, to refund all taxes paid that were sapose to be exempt.

make irs workers sign contracts that they will follow the rules and if they dont they will be fired and owe refund of wages and owe other appropriate refunds and charges.

its illegal for irs to collect taxes that are sapose to be exempt

put irs and gov under 24-7live public video survailence, unless gov has good reason for certian info to be kept secret, not all conduct needs to be secret and should be supervised by public. permit people un-paid by gov to do suprize inspections on the irs.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

This might shock you, but the politicos weighing in on the IRS scandal aftermath occasionally leap to conclusions. Over the weekend, the National Republican Congressional Committee issued attacks on Democratic incumbents because they (or more realistically, their spokesmen) had not issued responses to the scandal. (For example: "We all know that Tim Bishop could care less about crushing debt and wasteful government spending, but his failure to speak up on these issues on behalf of [his] constituents is flat out wrong.") A big assumption on the right is that Democrats spurred the IRS's bad behavior by banging the table about the Kochs and Karl Rove and all those rich people hiding money in tax-exempt "social welfare" groups.

Why assume? Because the IG report actually absolves the rest of the administration and the Obama campaign from the accusation of direct pressure. The key lines:

We asked the Acting Commissioner, Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division; the Director, EO; and Determinations Unit personnel if the criteria were influenced by any individual or organization outside the IRS. All of these officials stated that the criteria were not influenced by any individual or organization outside the IRS. Instead, the Determinations Unit developed and implemented inappropriate criteria in part due to insufficient oversight provided by management. Specifically, only first-line management approved references to the Tea Party in the BOLO [Be on the Look-Out] listing criteria before it was implemented. As a result, inappropriate criteria remained in place for more than 18 months.

This is why, since the report came out, you've heard more questions about when/why/how key Democrats learned of the story, and why they didn't react until the AP broke the news last Friday. Recall that the IRS officials dinged here are often career officials and Bush appointees -- not great scalps. The IG's saying that they're the only scalps that deserved to be separated from their skulls.

notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace

I thought the Irs did this all the time!  The perk of being in power is you get your friends at Irs, Fbi, Cia, Thrush, Mi6, Kaos, Ctu, Spectre, etc to harass your enemies.  Yes, I know some of them are fictional.....like the conspiracy.

paulejb
paulejb

"In IRS scandal, echoes of Watergate"

"The burglary occurred in 1972, the climax came in 1974, but 40 years ago this week — May 17, 1973 — the Senate Watergate hearings began exploring the nature of Richard Nixon’s administration. Now the nature of Barack Obama’s administration is being clarified as revelations about IRS targeting of conservative groups merge with myriad Benghazi mendacities."

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/george-will-irs-scandal-carries-echoes-of-watergate/2013/05/13/78f03660-bbf1-11e2-97d4-a479289a31f9_story.html

Are we condemned to reliving the Nixon administration every 40 years?


paulejb
paulejb

Watergate II - The Sequel

Barack H Obama as Richard M Nixon

Eric Holder as John Mitchell

David Axelrod as  H R "Bob" Haldeman

Jay Carney as Ron Ziegler

Valerie Jarrett as John Erlichman

paulejb
paulejb

"IRS officials in Washington were involved in targeting of conservative groups"

"Internal Revenue Service officials in Washington and at least two other offices were involved with investigating conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, making clear that the effort reached well beyond the branch in Cincinnati that was initially blamed, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post."

http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/obama-denounces-reported-irs-targeting-of-conservative-groups/2013/05/13/a0185644-bbdf-11e2-97d4-a479289a31f9_print.html

Not such a rogue operation after all.

paulejb
paulejb

"Five years later, the House of Representatives drew up articles of impeachment against Nixon, alleging, among other offenses, that the President had used the IRS improperly. “He has, acting personally and through his subordinates and agents, endeavored to obtain from the Internal Revenue Service, in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens, confidential information contained in income tax returns for purposed not authorized by law, and to cause, in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens, income tax audits or other income tax investigations to be initiated or conducted in a discriminatory manner,” the document read."

"Déjà vu all over again"



grape_crush
grape_crush

 > The current scandal is alleged to have involved only low-level officials

If it's even a scandal at all.

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

Michael, thanks for history lesson. Karen Tumulty would be proud. Good stuff. Also, it's okay to print that harassing the NAACP in 2004 happened under the George W. Bush administration, just like you reminded us that '90's harassment happened under Clinton. You're welcome.

PaulDirks
PaulDirks

This is the first time in a long time that I actually LEARNED something by reading a Swampland post. Thanks for the background.


outsider
outsider

Do we really need 3 stories in one day on this? The other two didn't serve?

lallen2064
lallen2064

In 2010 Obama's Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers Austan Goolsbee was to be investigated for allegedly accessing confidential tax information held by the IRS.  In 2013 we have allegations of targeting of selected groups by the IRS based on a political agenda.  Was the Austan Goolsbee story irrelevant as the Obama administration indicated in 2010?  Or was it part of a larger pattern by this administration.  Here is a link to the Washington Post article from 2010 http://voices.washingtonpost.com/federal-eye/2010/10/treasury_watchdog_to_probe_aus.html  "Federal tax watchdogs plan to review allegations that Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Austan Goolsbee may have illegally accessed the confidential tax information..."

smehgol
smehgol

IRS would be derelict by not subjecting the One Percent Tea Party Ayn Rand people and monied Israel Firsters 

to special IRS scrutiny. They are poor nonprofit candidates, cunningly resist taxes, and seek to conceal donor names.

MikeHihn
MikeHihn

Here's a thought.  Stop playing "Mommy, he did it first." -- and acknowledge both sides are totally corrupt, morally and intellectually.  How can any American choose up sides between Tweedeldum and Tweedledummer?

MikeHihn
MikeHihn

@dlkaijala 

I can't call you an optimist, not when you totally ignore the victims of jack-booted thugs, especially with so lame an excuse for doing so.

Using an extreme to clarify the point for you.  John and Bobby Kennedy were shot to death in rhe 1960s.  The rest of us survived the 60s, so the Kennedy murders can be ignored.  Sweet,


mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@paulejb We've just said goodbye to an administration that made Nixon look like a Saint. Or do you forget that the same was happening to the NAACP back in 2004.

MikeHihn
MikeHihn

@grape_crush "If it's even a scandal at all. "

Yeah, civil liberties  aren't worth defending.  Unless it's your own tribe being harassed.

TyPollard
TyPollard

@grape_crush 

It's all about the steady drumbeat of "scandal". Obama fatigue is the goal as it was with Clinton. The media is the main target.

MikeHihn
MikeHihn

You seem confused about the issue here, and I;m laughing hysterically at your screwup.

1)  MLK was also harassed by the IRS in 1964.  Read the article this time. And remind us who was President in 1964.

2)  Unless you can show systematic harassment of civil rights groups, not just Dr, King, you're just blowing smoke out your ... nose .. and don't even know the issue here.

You need many more history lessons.  But first learn what "false equivalence" means.




Ivy_B
Ivy_B

@PaulDirks The only complaint I have about the post is that it leaves the impression that the current situation involves audits. It doesn't.

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

@outsider2011 

These are just the warmup acts for JK later when he takes the stage/ It's like a Woodstock for corporate centrist media. Ben Ghazi will be the lead act tomorrow.

Chosun1
Chosun1

@smehgol - The organizations at issue generally filed as 501(c)4 social welfare organizations.  Such organizations have a legal right to conceal donor names, as do similar organizations on the left, or in the center or even off the horizontal axis that spans from left to right....  One of the offenses of the IRS in this matter is that they tried to (illegally) force 501(c)4 organizations to reveal their donors' identities. Anyway, Organizing for America / Organizing for Action and many other lefty organizations play the conceal donors game ... and they engage in plenty of political activity.  

MikeHihn
MikeHihn

mantisdragon91 is like saying, "But MOMMY, he did it FIRST!" 

This would be amusing if it  wasn't so pathetic.  When it's dozens of TeaParty and other groups from the right being persecuted then the IRS is doing its job.

But if ONE civil rights group gets audited then it's the end of the world. 

First learn what "moral equivalency" means.  Then give us a link showing where any systematic IRS harassment has been demonstrated under any Presidents other than:  FDR, JFK, LBJ and Clinton.

No, this is not a partisan screed.  Both parties are totally corrupted, with a shrinking minority of easily manipulated pawns.


grape_crush
grape_crush

@TyPollard@grape_crush > Obama fatigue is the goal as it was with Clinton. 

Problem for them is that these boys crying wolf constantly will end up seeing it backfire. There's only so much ginned-up faux-trage the people outside of the fringe will listen to before either tuning these crazies out or not taking them seriously.

Chosun1
Chosun1

@TyPollard @grape_crush -- It doesn't help Obama's cause that his Press Secretary lied to the White House Press Corps re: Benghazi and the Justice Department targeted the AP in a ridiculously broad dragnet of phone records -- many in the press, even many lefties, are not too happy with the Administration right now.  President Obama and his team need to play nice with the press -- give them extra love and information -- or he'll be in for more trouble.

retiredvet
retiredvet

@Chosun1 @smehgol Expect the IRS to follow the letter of the law more closely after this. Engaging in political activity will get your tax exempt status revoked.

jediwoman
jediwoman

@grape_crush @TyPollardBut they will spend tons of tax payer money after sticking indigent people with austerity measures. Where is the concern about the deficit now that they smell the chance to open another pointless investigation? Echos of Ken Starr and millions of wasted dollars that could be put to use for the homeless, or Vets, or the elderly, or the disabled. Or any of the other things we REALLY need to address in the US. 

Isn't it amazing that when it comes to money for those who urgently need it, the Republicans act like it's their last dime. But when it comes to nonsense like this, they want a blank check? Enough is enough. 

These people are reprehensible. I suspect this is about being given a license to go on a fishing expedition to dig up dirt to improve their chances in 2016. 


TyPollard
TyPollard

@grape_crush @TyPollard 

I do believe that most people have made up their minds as to who has credibility but our illustrious media can't help but take the bait.

MrObvious
MrObvious

@Chosun1 @TyPollard @grape_crush 

BENGHAZI!!!

Shakes fist at sky


Yeah, it's one of those 'dah birth certificate' type things. Shiny objects for people that think the legislative process is about grinding everything to a halt.