A Culture of Intimidation

In the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq during the Bush administration, the default assumption of the media was that it was a direct consequence of White House policies. Those who were particularly Bush/Cheney deranged imagined that the vice president himself probably spent his recreational time personally torturing Iraqi prisoners. But even more thoughtful people accused the administration of creating the environment in which the abuse could occur:

Defenders of the administration have argued, of course, that there is no “smoking gun”–no chain of orders leading directly from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to Pfc. Lynndie England and her co-conspirators. But that reasoning–now largely accepted within the Beltway–betrays a deliberate indifference to how large organizations such as the military actually work. In any war, civilian leaders set strategic aims, and it falls to commanders and planners at successively lower levels of command to refine that guidance into executable orders which can be handed down to subordinates. That process works whether the policy in question is a good one or a bad one. President Bush didn’t order the April 2003 “thunder run” into Baghdad; he ordered Tommy Franks to win the war and the Third Infantry Division’s leaders figured out how to make it happen. Likewise, no order was given to shove light sticks into the rectums of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Nevertheless, the road to the abuses began with flawed administration policies that exalted expediency and necessity over the rule of law, eviscerated the military’s institutional constraints on the treatment of prisoners, commenced combat with insufficient planning, preparation and troop strength, and thereby set the conditions for the abuses that would later take place.

Similarly, while we still don’t know what the White House knew and when it knew it (and the president’s non-responsive answer to a question that wasn’t asked on Thursday not only failed to clarify the issue, but increased cause for suspicion), the administration certainly created an environment in which IRS functionaries might have thought it was their job to go after his political enemies. If they weren't doing literally to them what the Abu Ghraib rogue soldiers were doing to individual Iraqi's fundaments, they were certainly doing it figuratively. This is particularly true because by the very nature of their job, and the ideology of the limited-government groups, many of the IRS employees probably viewed them as their own political adversaries.

After all, one of the political goals of the 501(c)4 groups whose names contained the words “Patriot” or “Tea Party” was to simplify the tax code, if not to abolish the income tax altogether, an outcome that threatened the size and power, if not very existence of the “service” for which the IRS employees worked. It would be natural (and even simply human) for them to be suspicious of the motives of such groups, and to wish to thwart them.

Moreover, while all employees except two are career civil service, and not appointed by or directly accountable to the White House, that doesn’t mean that they are apolitical. As Tim Carney points out:

…being a “career civil servant” doesn’t mean you’re making a career out of the job, or that you’re not political.

In the past three election cycles, the Center for Responsive Politics’ database shows about $474,000 in political donations by individuals listing “IRS” or “Internal Revenue Service” as their employer.

This money heavily favors Democrats: $247,000 to $145,000, with the rest going to political action committees. (Oddly, half of those GOP donations come from only two IRS employees, one in Houston and one in Annandale, Va.)

IRS employees also gave $67,000 to the PAC of the National Treasury Employees Union, which in turn gave more than 96 percent of its contributions to Democrats. Add the PAC cash to the individual donations and IRS employees favor Democrats 2-to-1.

The Cincinnati office where the political targeting took place is much more partisan, judging by FEC filings. More than 75 percent of the campaign contributions from that office in the past three elections went to Democrats. In 2012, every donation traceable to employees at that office went to either President Obama or liberal Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio. (emphasis by author)

Add to that the revolving door between top IRS officials and Democratic staff positions that Carney also notes, and there will be a natural bias within the bureaucracy against groups and individuals who appear to be opposed to Democratic policies and goals. Now consider the multiplication effect of the intense vilification and calumnies against the Tea Party as racist, bigoted, homophobic John Birchers by much of the media over that time period. It would make perfect sense for a typical IRS employee to view them as a threat not just to their own job, but to the nation itself -- they are enemies of the state. So when they claim that they’re not being political in giving more scrutiny to such groups, they probably believe it, just as many in the media are blind to their own partisan bias, because they are fish who don’t even see the water in which they swim.