Should Attorney General Eric Holder quit his office? Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas called for just that Sunday during an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” Why? There’s no written evidence that Mr. Holder actually recused himself from the Justice Department’s AP leak case, as he claims he did, said Senator Cornyn.
“I think it’s past time for him to go and for the president to appoint somebody who the public can have confidence in,” said Cornyn.
RECOMMENDED: Think you know the White House? Take our quiz.
Nor is Cornyn's a lone voice. Many Republicans – and some liberal Democrats – are calling for Holder’s replacement these days. The broad Justice Department subpoena of AP phone records is the main reason they cite.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, for instance, issued a statement last Tuesday calling for Holder to go.
“Attorney General Eric Holder, in permitting the Justice Department to issue secret subpoenas to spy on Associated Press reporters, has trampled on the First Amendment and failed in his sworn duty to uphold the Constitution,” said the Priebus statement. “Because Attorney General Holder has so egregiously violated the public trust, the president should ask for his immediate resignation.”
Wow, that’s pretty harsh. Is there any chance it will actually happen?
Well, you can never say “never” in partisan politics. But the chance of Holder losing his job anytime soon is not very high, absent any further disclosures.
Why’s this? One reason is that it’s mostly (though not exclusively) Republicans who are calling for Holder’s ouster, and the Obama White House does not want them to get a political win.
The animus between Holder and some Republicans is palpable during his appearances before congressional committees. It’s been that way for years. Cornyn, in fact, first called for Holder to resign last June. At the time, he cited Fast and Furious, as well as the fact that Holder would not appoint a special prosecutor to look into leaks of classified security information.
“With all due respect, senator, there’s so much that’s factually wrong with the premises that you started your statement with,” Holder told him at the time. “It’s almost breathtaking in its inaccuracy.”
The second reason is that President Obama probably agrees with the AP subpoena. His administration has prosecuted more leak cases than any in history. It’s tough to fire a guy for doing what he knows you want.
The last is the Fast and Furious connection. That’s last year’s scandal. If Holder were going to lose his job over that, it would have happened by now. For what it’s worth, Mr. Obama defended Holder vehemently last week during a press appearance.
“I have complete confidence in Eric Holder as attorney general,” said Obama.
RECOMMENDED: Think you know the White House? Take our quiz.
Ted Nugent’s brother is in favor of expanded background checks for gun purchases. We know this because the bro in question, Jeffrey Nugent, wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post on Saturday arguing that the National Rifle Association is wrong on this issue and that the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., requires the nation to reexamine what the Second Amendment really means.
“I believe strongly that expanding and improving mandatory background checks will keep a lot of people who aren’t entitled to Second Amendment rights from having easy access to guns,” this Nugent wrote.
Ted Nugent himself has a different opinion here, in case you didn’t know. He’s an NRA board member and an avid hunter who supports firearm rights. The Motor City Madman attended President Obama’s State of the Union address in person. Afterward, a CBS reporter asked for his reaction to Mr. Obama’s proposal of expanded background checks and other new gun-control measures in the speech.
“My reaction? I’m not allowed to do that because I’m supposed to keep my pants on,” he said.
So here’s the obvious question: Will there be a family explosion? Will Thanksgiving now be awkward, and Christmas cards go unexchanged? Will Nuge and bro Nuge maybe even come to blows?
No. It looks as if they’ll try to settle this the old-fashioned way – by writing.
First, we’ll note that Jeffrey Nugent is not really that much different in most of his attitudes here than Ted. The older Nugent – yes, he’s the older brother, you figured that didn’t you? – describes himself as a former Army officer and an NRA member and hunter himself. His op-ed is illustrated with a picture of Jeffrey and Ted and a wild boar they shot.
(By the way, he was president and chief executive of Revlon. Lip gloss and “Cat Scratch Fever,” all in the same family.)
J-Nuge, as we’ll call him, also emphasizes a way to possibly reduce gun violence that his brother would support: more effort in general to keep firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill and convicted felons.
And J-Nuge writes that his brother can make good points when they argue about guns.
Then he makes a perceptive observation: “Ted is someone who speaks in extremes to make his points. It reflects who he is, and it works for him and his audience.”
It’s true – Ted Nugent is not insane. He just feigns insanity on stage. The Nuge’s attitudes toward guns are not fringe so much as mainstream GOP. Slate columnist Dave Weigel has noted that if Nugent ran for Congress and won, he would not be the most conservative Republican in the House, by any means.
So Ted has responded to J-Nuge with rhetorical, not actual, fired shots. He’s written his own opinion piece for the conservative website NewsMax that lauds his “loving brother” and celebrates free expression.
Then he enlists that extreme thing his brother talked about to explain that he does not support expanded background checks because criminals will just ignore such restrictions.
“Paroled thugs or bug-eyed psychotics could not care less about any gun laws. The bold and ugly reality is that they will always gain access to a weapon. I believe at his core, my brother knows this,” Ted Nugent writes.
Here’s a prediction: This is a news show waiting to happen. “Crossfire,” with Nugent and Nugent. Talk about (word) lock and load. Or at least, it’s a news segment, with both bros on, say, “Hannity” at the same time. A booker is probably working on that right now.
North Korea on Monday continued to fire short-range projectiles from its east coast into the ocean, according to South Korean and US officials. The North Korean military has now launched six such weapons over the past three days.
US officials and experts outside government aren’t sure exactly what the projectiles are. They could be short-range missiles, or they could be rockets fired from a large-caliber gun. Both would travel similar ballistic paths.
Either weapon could reach Seoul and other important targets in South Korea. Over the weekend, the US urged North Korea to stop test shots and other provocative actions, saying they will only further isolate the hermit-like Pyongyang regime.
RECOMMENDED: Kim 101: How well do you know North Korea's leaders?
“We continue to urge the North Korean leadership to heed President Obama’s call to choose the path of peace and come into compliance with its international obligations,” said National Security Council spokesman Caitlin Hayden.
What’s North Korea up to? Are the tests just routine weapon development?
That’s possible. If the weapons are indeed a new type of rocket-propelled artillery, North Korea could be test-firing projectiles to see how they work.
But given the tensions on the Korean Peninsula it’s also possible that North Korea is engaging in a little flexing of its military hardware. Missile launches are a common North Korean reaction to what it considers to be threats from its neighbor to the south and the US.
In particular, Pyongyang has seemed peeved about the recent presence of the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier and its battle group in South Korean waters. The Nimitz reportedly engaged in a naval exercise with regional allies.
Last week a state-run North Korean newspaper complained that the appearance of the Nimitz was meant “to escalate the tension and ignite a nuclear war.”
There’s also a third possibility: North Korea is trying to toy with the United States.
Recall that in April Pyongyang appeared set to test-fire a new type of intermediate-range missile, the Musudan. Musudans were loaded onto launchers and all ready to go on North Korea’s east coast, said South Korean and US reports at the time.
Then, crickets. The Musudan or Musudans were not fired around April 15, the date North Korea celebrates the birth of founder Kim Il-sung. They were unloaded from their launchers and packed away, according to some reports from the region. Or they were still ready and waiting for launch, according to others.
The Korea Times reported in mid-April that Pyongyang was shuttling the missiles around in an attempt to evade US and South Korean surveillance.
The recent spate of short-range launches could be North Korea’s way of thumbing its nose at a world that was expecting something bigger. Or it could be North Korea’s way of distracting adversary intelligence forces from preparations for (finally!) a Musudan launch.
“I suppose one possibility is that the North Koreans are – and I am going to use a term of art here – jerking our chain,” wrote nonproliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, in a post on the North Korea blog 38 North, as to whether Pyongyang will ever fire a Musudan.
RECOMMENDED: Kim 101: How well do you know North Korea's leaders?
The famous Washington Post reporter and former antagonist of President Richard Nixon said the US government’s editing of talking points used by public officials in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks in Benghazi, Libya, is “a very serious issue.”
“I would not dismiss Benghazi,” Mr. Woodward said.
Woodward’s own main talking point was that he believed there are similarities between the process used to produce the Benghazi talking points and Nixon’s release of edited transcripts of the White House tapes.
Citing the lengthy e-mail chain detailing the production of the talking points, released by the Obama administration earlier this week, the Watergate press hero said that in the wake of the Libyan tragedy “everyone in the government is saying, ‘Oh, let’s not tell the public that terrorists were involved, people connected to Al Qaeda. Let’s not tell the public that there were warnings.’ ”
Forty years ago, Nixon went line by line through his tape transcripts and made his own edits.
“He personally went through them and said, ‘Let’s not tell this, let’s not show this,’ ” said Woodward on “Morning Joe."
Nixon, of course, was trying to deflate the increasing public and congressional pressure for him to release the tapes themselves. He wasn’t successful. The tapes revealed the extent of his involvement with the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover up.
As to Benghazi, Woodward concluded that the edits “show the hydraulic pressure that was in the system not to tell the truth.”
Is Woodward right to make this comparison? After all, he is the media’s official arbiter of all things Watergate, and his words here carry special weight.
Well, it’s certainly possible that he’s hit upon the reason the talking points got changed around. But having read the 100 pages of e-mails on the editing process ourselves, we’d say it’s also possible that he’s jumping to conclusions. For at least some of the officials involved in the process, the reason to take out references to terrorists and Al Qaeda was not to hide the truth, but because they did not know what the truth was.
For instance, early in the editing process Stephen Preston, the CIA’s general counsel, e-mailed talking-point participants that “in light of the criminal investigation, we are not to generate statements with statements as to who did this, etc. – even internally, not to mention for public release.”
And the scrubbed “warnings” Woodward referred to were fairly vague references to past CIA internal statements. The Post journalist may be right that the public should have heard about them. State Department officials, though, were transparently annoyed that the spy agency was trying to cover its rear end at their expense.
Look, things don’t have to be as bad as Watergate to be important malfeasance. Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein made that point earlier this week on his A Plain Blog About Politics.
But loosely comparing current scandals with Watergate is to forget the full extent of the Nixon-era scandal, wrote Mr. Bernstein in a post titled, “You Call That a Cover-Up?”
In Watergate the cover-up was essentially personally directed by the president, overseen by the White House chief of staff, and run by the White House counsel, Bernstein writes. They concocted a false story, destroyed important evidence, and raised hush money used to attempt to buy the silence of underlings who were facing jail time.
By the way, the Watergate hearings began 40 years ago on this date. Bernstein has been writing a fascinating series of pieces outlining the unfolding of the Watergate scandal day by day, as if it were occurring in real time. You can read that to catch up on the bad old days and decide if today compares.
Our read on this drove of internal documents? There’s no bureaucracy like a classified bureaucracy. While lots of lawmakers and pundits have argued over who was responsible for particular changes, there’s been much less attention paid to the editing process as a whole. The e-mails arguably depict that process as lengthy, ad hoc, contentious, and ineffective at producing information with any added value.
In fact, by the end, the nation’s national security team seems more than a bit like Dunder Mifflin, the dysfunctional paper company that’s at the heart of the TV series “The Office.”
Here’s how the Benghazi talking points story arc played out:
THE FIRST EFFORT SOUNDED FINE. As distributed by the CIA’s Office of Congressional Affairs at around 2:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 14, the talking points were a mix of the obvious and the reasonable, though there was one mistake at the beginning.
They began by noting that, at that time, the CIA believed the attacks were “spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo.” This was wrong, but it’s one of the only talking points that no one ever tried to edit.
The document added that “this assessment may change.” That’s pretty safe to assume, right?
Then the points said “the crowd was almost certainly a mix of individuals from across many sectors of Libyan society.” That’s also safe to assume, if not blindingly obvious.
“That being said, we do know that Islamic extremists with ties to Al-Qaeda participated in the attack,” the CIA continued. Again, given the group’s spread, that’s likely. But “know”? OK, maybe that needs changing.
Then the third talking point: “Initial press reporting linked the attack to Ansar al-Sharia.” Note the reference to press reports, which lawmakers could read at the time. The CIA itself at no point said this extremist group was involved.
Then the CIA noted that the “wide availability of weapons and experienced fighters in Libya” probably made the attacks worse. Duh. The agency ended by noting the public fact that there had been previous attacks against foreign interests in Benghazi.
UNDERLINGS MADE IT WORSE. Right away other intelligence officers started messing with this template. Shortly after the first draft was circulated, the CIA’s Office of Terrorism Analysis noted that “warnings” should be added.
Shortly thereafter, intelligence analysts added to the first point, putting in a sentence that read “we warned of social media reports calling for a demonstration in front of the Embassy and that jihadists were threatening to break into the Embassy.”
What was the point of that? It is hard to see this add as anything other than rear-end covering. This was emphasized by another addition further down: “The Agency has produced numerous pieces on the threat of extremists linked to Al Qaeda in Benghazi and eastern Libya.”
The e-mails show that this sparked a lively interagency debate as to whether the CIA was trying to make the Utica office – sorry, the State Department – look bad. That was the point of the now famous e-mail from State spokesman Victoria Nuland that lawmakers would use the proposed wording to “beat the State Department for not paying attention to Agency warnings.”
HIGHER-UPS THEN MADE IT USELESS. Of course, as “The Office” teaches us, it doesn’t really matter what the underlings do, because they’re just moving the chairs around waiting for the powers-that-be to arrive.
Given the way State and the CIA were tussling over the talking points, White House deputy national security director Ben Rhodes called a timeout, scheduling a Saturday meeting at which the problems could be resolved “in a way that respects all of the relevant equities.”
The results of this meeting aren’t reported in the e-mail chain. But the documents released by the White House include a copy of the talking points that is heavily edited by CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell.
Mr. Morell crossed out the disputed CIA “warning” sections. But then he went further, ditching entire sections about the press reports on Ansar al Sharia, the possible involvement of extremists linked to Al Qaeda, and even the wide availability of weapons in Libya. Given the nature of the violence that ousted Muammar Qaddafi, isn’t the weapons thing a given? Taking it out is like taking out a reference to Libya as full of sand.
The remaining talking point language was bare bones. This is what the CIA ended up giving to lawmakers who were looking for guidance. In essence, they said that attacks were likely inspired by protests at the Embassy in Cairo (wrong), that that assessment might change “as more information is collected” (obvious) and that the investigation is ongoing (redundant).
One last point: finally on Saturday afternoon, then-director of the CIA David Petraeus weighed in. (Why does the head of the nation’s preeminent human spy agency take the time to review stuff like this? That’s what chiefs of staff are for.) His conclusion was that he’d “just as soon not use this,” given its lack of information, but that he knew it wasn’t his call.
“This is certainly not what [Intelligence Committee ranking Democrat Dutch] Ruppersberger was hoping to get,” wrote Mr. Petraeus. “Regardless, thx for the great work.
In other words, this is awful, but gosh you guys did a good job. Doesn’t that sound like “The Office” Scranton branch manager Michael Scott, aka Steve Carroll?
Editor's note: This story was updated at 4 p.m. EDT.
The heads are starting to roll at the Internal Revenue Service, but it will take a lot more than a single high-profile resignation to quiet the storm raging over the IRS targeting scandal.
In a delayed act of damage control, President Obama announced Wednesday evening the forced resignation of Acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller. It was, of course, only a matter of time, an expected move to assign blame and accountability, as well as provide catharsis for an angry public.
The president wasted no time naming a temporary replacement, on Thursday selecting Daniel Werfel, controller of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), to take on the unenviable task of rebuilding the tarnished agency's reputation.
“Americans are right to be angry about it, and I’m angry about it,” Mr. Obama said Wednesday when revealing Mr. Miller's departure, adding that he “will not tolerate this kind of behavior in any agency, but especially in the IRS, given the power that it has and the reach that it has.”
The Obama administration also released a letter from Treasury Secretary Jack Lew that demanded that Mr. Miller resign in order “to restore public trust and confidence in the IRS.” (The IRS is part of the Treasury Department.)
The resignation came six days after news emerged of the Internal Revenue Service's targeting actions and a day after a watchdog report concluded the agency used “inappropriate criteria” to screen groups seeking tax-exempt status. The IRS used keywords and phrases such as “tea party” and “patriot” to target conservative groups for extra scrutiny.
In fact, the targeting occurred not under Miller, but during the tenure of former IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman. Still, lawmakers say Miller did not inform Congress about the targeting practice, despite inquiries from Republican lawmakers.
Not surprisingly, Republicans aren’t satisfied with his resignation.
“Simply allowing the acting head of the IRS to resign is not enough,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement, calling on Obama to apologize to the American people.
In a tweet he added, “This is clearly a scapegoat that distracts from answering the core Qs.”
“My question isn’t about who is going to resign. My question is who’s going to jail over this scandal?” he said Wednesday.
The answer will have to wait for the outcome of a Justice Department criminal investigation, which Attorney General Eric Holder announced earlier this week.
To say that Mr. Werfel, who takes over as acting IRS commissioner next Wednesday, is tackling one of the least-envied jobs in Washington would be a gross understatement. He faces gargantuan challenges.
Among them, he will have to address the faulty protocol that led to the inappropriate targeting in the first place. And because the scandal exposed problems in the tax code’s designation of politically oriented nonprofits, Werfel may need to call for an overhaul of the auditing process for 501(c)(3)s and related groups.
Perhaps most important, however, as Politico has pointed out, the successor at IRS will have “a massive public relations job to carry out, convincing Congress and the American public that the agency can get back on track and become a trusted government entity again.”
Mr. Obama acknowledged as much in a statement announcing Werfel's change of assignment. "As we work to get to the bottom of what happened and restore confidence in the IRS, Danny has the experience and management ability necessary to lead the agency at this important time," Thursday's statement said. It might help a little that Werfel, who has held a number of posts at OMB, also worked for the George W. Bush administration on the Federal Accounting and Standards Advisory Board.
Perhaps his only consolation is that there is already an end in sight: Werfel plans to serve as acting IRS commissioner through the end of the fiscal year – now 4-1/2 months away.
“Going Bulworth”? What’s that? The phrase sounds kind of ... ominous and energetic at the same time.
“Bulworth” was a 1998 political movie starring Warren Beatty that made a bit of a splash when it was released but since has faded into obscurity. In general, it was much cleverer than Beatty’s bland “Dick Tracy” and more entertaining than his long and boring “Reds.”
Its central premise was this: Jay Billington Bulworth is a veteran California Democratic senator who left his liberal principles in the dust long ago. Now he takes money from special interests to bottle up bills in his committee.
But he’s in danger of losing his seat in a reelection bid. Tired of the whole game, he starts speaking his mind, telling audiences exactly what he does and the extent of Washington’s soft corruption.
At one point, for instance, he admits to an African-American audience that his Democratic Party is doing nothing for blacks. “So what are you going to do, vote Republican?” he says. “Come on, you’re not going to vote Republican.”
The movie also feature an assassination subplot and Halle Berry as Beatty’s love interest, but those are immaterial to the message Mr. Obama appears to have extracted from the movie.
The Times quotes longtime Obama adviser David Axelrod on the “Bulworth” desire, saying every politician wants some catharsis at some point, but you have to be “practical” about what you say.
We’ve got a point to add there: We think it’s possible the “Bulworth” reference is something Obama should avoid.
The movie is not exactly analogous to “Network,” that famous 1976 flick in which a deranged anchor cries that he “just can’t take it anymore.” Beatty’s Bulworth character is partly a prophet, but he’s also long been complicit in the system. To a certain extent, his speaking out reflects not just a disgust with the system, but disgust with himself and how he has let the system corrupt him.
GOP pundits could make a fairly decent talking point out of that, couldn’t they?
As the late great Roger Ebert noted in his review of the movie, “ 'Bulworth' made me laugh – and wince.”
If Obama wants to talk about emulating fictional characters, perhaps he’d be better served to mull over the prospect of “going Bartlet,” after the pretty-much-saintly President Jed Bartlet of the television drama “The West Wing.”
Toss a pebble into a lake and the ripples spread far and wide. Lob a scandal, in which the anti-tax tea party is under attack by its nemesis, the Internal Revenue Service, into the shark-infested waters of Washington, and well, the political ramifications are huge.
Whatever comes of the investigations into the IRS’s inappropriate targeting of conservative groups in the 2012 election cycle, this much appears certain: the scandal will unite conservatives, invigorate the tea party, and potentially affect the 2014 midterm elections.
Here are five ways the IRS scandal will change Washington:
1) Invigorate the tea party and its small-government movement
For thousands of tea party members across the nation, it’s an “I told you so” moment. You have to admit the scandal is perfectly scripted. Big government, and taxes in particular, are the movement’s central grievance. Heck, the group even takes its name from the Boston Tea Party, the iconic historical protest against unfair taxation.
How perfect, then, that the latest scandal to hit Washington confirms the tea party’s anti-big government, anti-tax, anti-IRS crusade. What’s more, it confirms countless complaints by tea party groups and allegations by right-leaning websites like The Blaze that the IRS was going after conservative groups.
In Washington, the tea party had been losing its luster almost ever since the shining glory of the 2010 midterms. The IRS scandal could be the rallying cry of a reinvigorated movement.
2) Unite conservatives
The GOP’s 2012 election square dance – two steps to the right in the primary, one step to the left in the general election – exposed a rift between the Republican Party and its conservative base, one that’s only widened as the party is forced to reconsider issues like gay marriage and immigration.
Yet, as every tactician knows, nothing unites like a common enemy. As such, the IRS scandal unleashed a golden opportunity for conservatives.
“The accusations of IRS abuse are sure to fuel an effort that appears to be uniting dispirited Republicans and their conservative political base: investigating Mr. Obama and his administration,” The New York Times reported Monday. “Republicans are pushing a portrayal of an administration overreaching its authority and punishing its enemies.”
Enemies that are sure to leverage the situation to their advantage.
3) Impact midterm elections
Yes, believe it or not, it’s true. If conservatives can sustain, even strengthen, that unity, and launch a big-government attack on Democrats, the IRS scandal could influence the 2014 midterm elections.
In a recent column, political polling guru Nate Silver predicts the IRS debacle “could have a substantial political impact,” and has “the potential to harm Democrats’ performance in next years’ midterm elections, partly by motivating a strong turnout from the Republican base.”
He uses a five-point test to argue that the scandal “has legs”: it can be described in one sentence, cuts to the core of a candidate or party’s brand, and reinforces a negative perception about a candidate, among other points.
Expect reverberations in 2014.
4) Invigorate the tax code reform movement
For years advocacy groups and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle – from Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana to libertarian Rep. Ron Paul of Texas to Republican Gov. Rick Perry of Texas – have advocated for tax reform. It’s an uphill, if not vertiginous, climb and a goal that has remained elusive for decades.
If they’re smart, lawmakers and tax advocacy groups will use the IRS scandal – and its revelations about tax code loopholes (recall that 501(c)(4)s are often used by political groups to avoid paying taxes and to hide donors) – to invigorate their cause.
Ambitious? Yes. But given the current climate in Washington, the timing couldn’t be better.
5) Derail bipartisan cooperation
Alas, as if partisan bickering and congressional gridlock weren’t enough, the IRS fiasco throws another wrench into legislative wrangling on issues like gun control, immigration, and the debt ceiling debate.
“The IRS developments couldn’t come at a worse time for the White House, which has spent months courting GOP support for everything from gun control to an overhaul of immigration laws,” it reported. “If the administration’s recent GOP charm offensive bought any goodwill, it seems to be on short supply now.”
Or, as the Washington Post said, “We aren’t likely to see Republicans and Democrats in Congress join hands and sing Kumbaya any time soon.”
Russia expelled a US diplomat on Tuesday after Kremlin security services charged that they had caught him trying to recruit a Russian agent. Russian officials said they were shocked, shocked that such (alleged) espionage was still occurring in the post-Cold War period, and that the diplomat in question, Ryan Fogle, was an incompetent spy to boot.
They displayed several ill-fitting wigs that they said Mr. Fogle brought to his recruitment attempt, along with packets of cash, a map and compass, a pocketknife, and a cellphone that appeared old enough to have the 1990s on speed dial. Officials also said Fogle had carried a letter from the CIA addressed to his target.
RECOMMENDED: Vladimir Putin 101: A quiz about Russia's president
Was Fogle set up? That seemed the consensus among US analysts in the wake of this development. Overall, the whole thing seemed a spy scene from a Judd Apatow comedy, as opposed to a brooding John le Carré novel. Many noted that the wigs were laughable, and that the “recruitment letter” sounded a lot like Nigerian Internet scam e-mail.
After all, the letter promised $100,000 merely to “discuss” cooperation and “up to $1 million a year” for long-term help. That’s a lot of money for an uncertain espionage asset at a time when the US government is suffering from sequestration. Oh, and the letter reminded the recruitment target to find a coffee shop with WiFi to set up a Gmail account for spy communication, and offered reimbursement if the rookie spy had to buy a tablet or other device for their new career in espionage.
“Hey, Russian official, if that promise of $1 million a year wasn’t enough, Uncle Sam may be willing to hook you up with an iPad. How could you possibly say no to this offer?” joked Elias Groll of Foreign Policy on the magazine’s Passport blog.
Others noted that the whole thing smelled of payback for the most recent Russia-US spy scandal, the notorious 2010 incident in which a group of alleged deep-cover Russian spies were kicked out of the US despite the fact that they never seemed to have engaged in any actual espionage.
Dan Drezner, professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., pointed out that the undercover Russians incident spawned the current FX series, “The Americans,” about undercover Russian spies living in the US.
The male lead in “The Americans” uses lots of wigs in his tradecraft, wrote Mr. Drezner on his own eponymous Foreign Policy blog.
“One must stand back and gape in wonder at how reality breeds fiction, which then breeds reality,” wrote Drezner.
Look, human superpower espionage has long been something of a game. Fogle was posted to Moscow as third secretary of the political department, a job listing which for both countries often really means “spy." People at that level used to get followed routinely. In Washington, you’d have lunch with a Soviet third secretary, and then the FBI would come to your office afterward to ask what went on.
Remember the “Bug House," the new US Embassy building in Moscow that was so riddled with wiretaps during its construction in the 1980s that the US had to tear parts down and then put another building on top, as a kind of hat?
Soviet workers arranged darker bricks on that building’s façade to spell out “CCCP," the Cyrillic initials for the USSR. US diplomats, for their part, quickly realized that a nearby house of worship was serving as wiretap headquarters. They dubbed it “The Church of the Holy Telemetry."
The difference is that much more was riding on that game during the Cold War. Real secrets were passed on both sides. Espionage could be life and death. CIA officer Aldrich Ames passed names of US spy assets in the Soviet Union to his handlers. Ten were executed. Mr. Ames himself is serving a sentence of life in prison.
Today, the espionage tit-for-tat can seem laughable. Maybe that’s a good thing, a reflection of improved relations. Russia and the US still clash on many, if not most, geopolitical issues. But they work together on some. The superpower standoff of the Cold War is gone, and thus the spy wars have less riding on their outcome.
RECOMMENDED: Vladimir Putin 101: A quiz about Russia's president
So far, new revelations about the terror attack in Benghazi, Libya, and the targeting of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service have had only modest effect on President Obama’s standing with the American public.
However, that could change as Republican-led investigations into the administration’s actions roll on. There’s reason to believe the IRS scandal, in particular, could hurt Democrats at the polls in the 2014 midterms, according to New York Times polling guru Nate Silver.
As for Mr. Obama himself, right now his approval rating is about one point lower than it was a month ago, according to the RealClearPolitics rolling average of major polls. Some 48.6 percent of respondents say they approve of the way Obama is doing his job, while 46.1 percent disapprove.
Many polls included in that figure were conducted after ABC News reported that, contrary to the administration’s previous statements, the White House and State Department heavily influenced edits to Central Intelligence Agency talking points on Benghazi.
In general, Americans are not paying much attention to Benghazi news, according to a separate Pew survey released Monday. Only 23 percent said they have followed Benghazi closely.
This does not necessarily mean they are shrugging off the whole Benghazi situation, however. Forty percent of respondents say the administration has generally been dishonest about providing information on the attack. Thirty-seven percent say the administration has been generally honest.
Interest in the Benghazi subject is split along partisan lines, with twice as many Republicans in the “closely following” camp as Democrats.
However, not much of the presidential approval/disapproval polling reflects the IRS story yet. That broke last Friday and has been growing in severity since.
Republicans might have good reason to believe that Obama will be more affected by news that the IRS used keywords such as “tea party” to search for groups to single out for special scrutiny – whether the action is directly tied to the White House or not.
Everybody understands the IRS, point out Washington Post political bloggers Chris Cillizza and Sean Sullivan Tuesday in “The Fix.” Domestic issues typically generate more interest than foreign ones. And Democratic lawmakers are lining up to denounce the practice almost as fast as Republican ones are.
Political scandals generally have much less long-term electoral effect than the press and Washington insiders suppose, Silver at the NYT notes.
But some have legs, and the IRS flap might be one of those.
The scandal is easy to describe, but hard to refute, Silver judges. It cuts against Obama’s claim that he is a president who is trying to reach out to the other political side. It’s also coming in a slow political news cycle.
The IRS story “has the potential to harm Democrats’ performance in next year’s midterm elections, partly by motivating a strong turnout from the Republican base,” writes Silver.