Eugene Robinson Live

May 28, 2013

Live chat with Eugene Robinson about his latest columns and political news.

Hello, everyone, and welcome to our weekly hour of free-form discussion about... well, about anything and everything. My column this morning was about President Obama's national security speech last week. I thought it was a good first step toward moving us away from an open-ended "war on terror," which can never be won, and defining the actual threats we face. In other news, Syria continues in agony while the fragile sectarian truce in Iraq has been broken. And the administration continues to try to explain its unprecedented policy on leaks. Adelante.

Eugene, two weeks ago, anyone who said Obama would use the IRS to intimidate his political foes into silence would be called a conspiracy nut. Now they're called 'right'. Are you concerned at all by the heavy-handed and transparently politically-motivated use of the government as a tool to advance Obama and the Democratic Party? I know you're a good Democrat, but honestly, how would you feel if a Republican President spied on the WaPo? Or used the IRS to harass Media Matters, Planned Parenthood, and the NAACP? Or left good Americans to die at the hands of Al Qaeda -- and blamed it all on a YouTube video? Surely you wouldn't want a future President to act like Obama?

I'd still have to use the term "conspiracy nut," unless you have evidence linking the outrageous IRS behavior -- conducted under a George W. Busn appointee, by the way -- to the White House. I haven't seen any such evidence. As to the rest of your screed, um, a GOP president DID spy on the Washington Post, or do his best, once upon a time; I've been as clear and declarative as I could be in denouncing the way the administration dealt with the AP and Fox News reporter James rosen. And nobody "left good Americans to die." Come on.

As someone who has probably made a comment or two about GWB use of the term, this is an exteremely poor idea. Complacently is exactly what the terrorist want you to think. It was very recent that many were injured in Boston due to Islamic Terrorist. Our borders on each side (esp in the north) are insecure where terrorist can walk right into the country. Yes planes may no longer be a target, but the number of other soft and easily accessible shows we do not have a comprehensive approach. This seems like a very short sited comment.

My point is that you have to define the mission to know when you've accomplished it. Our mission after 9/11 was to destroy al-Qaeda and impose justice, or enact retribution, on its leaders. We have done that. We face continuing threats -- from al-Qaeda offshoots, al-Qaeda wannabes and self-radicalized jihadists -- but lumping all of this together into a "war on terror" is conceptually unsound. Nothing we could do to the Canadian border would have stopped the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston. And what if the next mass shooter, with no history of jihadist indoctrination or training, decides to yell, "Alllahu akbar"? (Then, I suppose, maybe we'd get some sensible gun control...)

Eugene, can't the IRS fire the woman who plead the fifth before Congress? I'm pretty sure the Civil Service code requires you to cooperate with all IG or Congressional investigations. Besides, the Fifth can only be invoked to avoid incriminating yourself in a CRIMINAL (not civil) matter. What crimes is she covering up? And why hasn't she been fired?

Hold on, cowboy or cowgirl. No attorney would have allowed Lois Lerner to speak to that hostile committee with an investigation under way that seeks to determine, among other things, whether any laws were broken. And while I confess to not knowing the nuances of the civil service code in this case, I do know that even if Lerner's bosses wanted to fire her, they would have to go through procedures that take time. And for the record, invoking one's right against self-incrimination is not "covering up." 

Hi Eugene -- thanks for taking questions today. It seems like the scandalmeter in Washington seems to be in low gear at the moment. Is that because of summer, the president changing the subject, the Republicans regrouping for later assaults, or a combination of the above? Are there shoes yet to drop, or are the scandals playing themselves out?

We don't know, obviously, but here's my assessment of the "scandals," and I use the word loosely. Benghazi was a tragedy of the kind that unfortunately happens in every administration. Jihadist murderers, not Washington officials, killed Ambassador Stevens and the others. The Obama White House is no more guilty than the Reagan White House was guilty of the Marine Corps barracks bombing in Beirut. Americans understand this, even if poartisan hacks do not. The administration's overzealous pursuit of leakers, or whistleblowers -- and its pursuit of journalists -- is a real scandal, in my view. Or at least a real mistake. But I'm a journalist, and I realize my profession doesn't get a whole lot of love from the general public. That leaves the IRS transgressions, and I think we don't yet know what kind of legs this one has. But of the three, I'd say that IRS is definitely not yet played out. 

So, asking a group with the name "Tea Party Patriots for Freedom" to prove that it's truly a non-profit is UNFAIR profiling, but searching everyone with a brown face or a funny-sounding last name is FAIR profiling? Can you help me understand this?

Well, that would be a pretty fine distinction. Why don't we just say "no profiling" and leave it at that?

if anyone's troubled to read about the actual details of the IRS story, the agency was inundated with applications for tax-exempt status from organizations that made it plain they were out to eliminate all taxes -- who were politicking blatantly. That alone warranted extra scrutiny. The AP thing, I can't defend.

Look, the law that allows so-called "social welfare" organizations to enjoy nonprofit status -- while behaving in a way that any observer would call political -- is one giant loophole. That said, however, you can't single out groups from one end of the political spectrum for enhanced scrutiny. You just can't.

What fueled them? Oh wait that's right - it was a YouTube video, right? The difference between the Beirut incident and this one is one didn't lie and make excuses while the other did.

No, the difference would be that 241 Americans died in Beirut and four in Benghazi.

The "war on terror" was misnamed at the start. Although I agree that it makes no sense to wage war on a tactic, calling it the war on terror implies that only one side used the tactic. What the jihadists called terrorism, Donald Rumsfeld and others called shock and awe. Drone strikes are a form of terror, as was the attack on Fallujah. Throughout Iraq and Afghanistan there have been similar events specifically designed to strike terror into the hearts of those who resist the American-sponsored invasions. The correct name is and continues to the the war OF terror, and it will not end until both sides renounce the tactic.

I have to disagree. Drone strikes are used by the U.S. as a form of assassination, not terror. The United States is not guilty of terrorism in the same way al-Qaeda is. 

Eugene, consumer confidence is soaring and home prices just jumped. The stock market is way up. Does Obama take a victory lap, or admit that he "didn't build that"?

You forgot to mention that the deficit is rapidly shrinking. Republicans are going to have to abandon the Obama-is-ruining-the-economy line of attack and find something new.

Did you read Walter Pincus' article about the Justice Department's access to the AP phone records? What did you think? And how did you escape Orangeburg, SC?

Yes, and with all due respect to Walter, a great journalist and a longtime friend, I don't know what he's talking about. The fact is that leaks happen -- some less serious, some more serious. Prior administrations have been able to deal with leaks of equal or greater import without snooping through reporters' phone logs -- or, in the Rosen case, describing reporters as co-conspirators. 

I am at a loss to understand how anyone who has publicly stated that our planet cannot be more than 9,000 years old could be appointed as a member of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Last year, Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) said that he knows "for a fact" that the earth cannot be more than 9,000 years old, yet Rep. Broun sits on this committee, is the Chairman of The Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, and is a voting member of the Subcommittee on Energy, Subcommittee on Space, Subcommittee on Research, Subcommittee on Technology and the Subcommittee on Environment. I read today that Ron Paul has endorsed the candidacy of Paul Broun to replace retiring Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.). Is there any procedural mechanism to remove Paul Broun from a science-based committee and place in one more appropriate to his understanding of reality, perhaps the Department of Alchemy and Astrology? Many thanks, Baffled in Belleview.

If you're baffled, I'd suggest you consult the Tarot. But I guess that would be kind of satanic...

What's the point of pursuing more talks with Syria? I think it is clear that the only way al-Assad gives up power is if he is dead. Since the president has stated "al-Assad must go," the two positions are mutally exclusive and cannot be negotiated.

The purpose of talks would be to convince Assad to get out of Dodge while the getting is good -- and, I assume, to offer him someplace to land. But as long as Assad thinks he can win this fight, talks hold no promise.

Do you consider Sen. McCain's foray into Syria a political stunt or a legitimate fact-finding mission?

I think it was legit. I don't agree with Sen. McCain's view of what the United States should try to do in Syria, but I don't doubt that he holds that view sincerely and passionately.

Having worked in IRS Office of Chief Counsel for over 10 years, it's clear to me that politics were at play with applicants for tax-exempt status. Not the little fish that were the subject of the Cincinnati Service Center scandal, but the big fish that weren't touched. I can guarantee you the IRS personnel in charge of tax-exempt entities knew they had ample evidence justifying a serious inquiry into Crossroads USA, Freedom Works, and their Democratic counterparts. I can also guarantee you that the IRS knew full well that they would be pilloried if they dared apply the law to these giant § 501(c)(4) organizations for violating the law. I've seen this happen during both Democratic and Republican administrations. That is the real scandal. As for Cincinnati, remember the old saying: Never attribute to conspiracy what can be explained by simple incompetence.

Thanks for injecting a little insight. 

As the fact checker has already proven, the uptick in applications happened after the profiling and even then it was not that substantial. As the left often says to global warming skeptics, you can have your own opinions, but not your own facts. Hoping you will dispel this rumor.

The Fact Checker is always right. (Except in those rare instances when he's wrong.)

He has a terrific column in today's paper regarding Jim Rosen of FOX News. Mr. Rosen sounds like a scoundrel to me and I am left with the feeling (as I have thought before) that Eric Holder and the Justice Dept are right to look into the matter of publishing security info. Why aren't more journalists concerned about the release of secrets?

As with Walter's piece last week, about which I commented earlier, I don't get it. I don't care whether James Rosen worked for Fox or MSNBC or the Tea Party Times. I don't care whether he used flattery or other forms of manipulation (which essntially ALL investigative reporters do). Courts have long established that news organizations have a right to publish, period. In practice, news organizations are highly responsive when officials call with national security concerns. Sometimes information is left out. Sometimes stories are held or killed. But the issue here wasn't publication, it was gathering the news. Contending that Rosen somehow broke the law by gathering information, as a journalist, is stunningly wrong. 

Gene, the government can't force an employee to choose between her constitutional rights and her job. See Kalkines v. U.S., 473 F.2d 1391, in which the government ordered an employee to answer questions but refused to provide immunity. The resulting dismissal was overturned by the court. The IRS can't fire her for refusing to answer questions unless it makes clear she won't be prosecuted based on the answers.

...And if the House committee had really wanted Lerner's testimony, it could have granted her immunity, no?


That's it for today, folks. Our time is up. See you again next week!

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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