Of course, the general answer to my question is, ‘It is happening in many of the locations hinted at above’. But I am thinking particularly of North America, and, particularly, north of the Mexican border. Astonishingly, the country that is systematically persecuting its political opponents and bugging its media, is the country that has traditionally held the democratic ideals so dearly, the United States.
It is now clear that for two years, the Federal Internal Revenue Service has been persistently targeting for special scrutiny, conservative political groups who were supporters, or potential supporters, of Republican candidates in recent elections. This applied particularly, of course, to supporters of Mitt Romney in the recent presidential election. Some of these groups were applying for tax-exempt status under the provisions of US tax law, just as were groups with left-of-centre programmes. The difference is that the latter were not harassed. The other category of persons who were the focus of attention over this period was that of wealthy business persons, who found themselves subjected to special audit from the IRS and investigation from the Labour Department.
The fact that this was going on is beyond dispute. It was the subject of a very belated internal investigation in the Internal Revenue Service, which was recently made public. Senior officials in that agency have conceded the point to congressional hearings, whilst at the same time denying that they themselves authorised it, or had any knowledge that it was going on. A middle-ranking official, who is said to have been administratively responsible for this deliberate targeting of opposition organisations and individuals, has also been placed on ‘administrative leave’ (having refused to resign). That’s the civil service, for you! Incidentally, she also refused to testify to Congress on the grounds that she might incriminate herself (she ‘took the fifth’).
Can you imagine the outcry if it turned out that John Key’s government was targeting the taxation and business activities of persons associated with the Labour or Green parties? Such an outcry is what has begun in the United States.
There is also a growing scandal regarding the monitoring, by government intelligence agencies, of the telephone and other communications, of reporters and media organisations. So far this is known to have happened generally to journalists at APA and, particularly, to a well-known reporter at Fox News, James Rosen. In the latter case, the bugging seems to have extended not only to Fox News offices in various cities but also to Mr Rosen’s family. The justification in all these cases is said (by the US Justice Department) to be the investigation of ‘leaks’ of a security-sensitive nature from government sources. In the Rosen case, the surveillance is said to be justified by a suspicion that he has been engaged in ‘a conspiracy’ to reveal secret material, which would be manifestly criminal (a violation of the Espionage Act). It would be fair to say that the US media (and I don’t just mean Fox News) is outraged by this, and particularly by the notion that a public servant who leaks information is in the same legal situation as a journalist who reports it. On the other hand, it is clear that if you want to intimidate the press (and the opposition press in particular) this is a good way to do it.
President Obama has contrived to keep his distance from all of this. He says he knew nothing of the unseemly activities at the tax department, or of the equally deplorable actions of the department of justice in the matter of monitoring the activities of the media, even though he appointed the head of the IRS and the Secretary of Justice, who was issuing the warrants, and even though all sorts of senior persons on his Whitehouse staff knew what was going on.
Some of this may come as a shock to New Zealand readers. Little of these matters has been reported here and, indeed, little has been reported in the main-stream media in the United States, until very recently. But the idea that a government might use its power to persecute political opponents, and the thought that ordinary citizens cannot expect fair treatment from an agency as important as the Inland Revenue, has really struck home in a way that earlier scandals, such as what happened at Benghazi (see my ‘Questions from Benghazi’ of October, last), or ‘Fast and Furious’ (concerning government gun-running), did not.
In these earlier cases it seemed that a sycophantic and generally pliant media was willing to go along with what amounted to a government cover-up. Now people are bringing up the spectre of ‘Watergate’. Whether present events could come to this is perhaps doubtful but the key elements are there: the dubious dealings and, quite crucially, the determined effort to cover it all up. It isn’t the malfeasance or the administrative failure that causes the problem. It is the lying about it afterwards that generates the heat. We shall see how all this plays out.