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.
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.