The False God of 'Narrative'
"What if the government starts enforcing the espionage statute whenever there's a leak?" Steve Roberts, a former New York Times journalist who teaches at George Washington University, observed to the Baltimore Sun. "It's going to have a tremendously chilling effect on this interplay between sources and reporters."
But Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) insisted that stopping leaks should be a very high priority. "When national security secrets leak and become public knowledge," he wrote in a letter to the president, "our people and our national interests are jeopardized. And when our enemies know our secrets, American lives are threatened."
As it happens, these two quotations are separated by seven years. Roberts was speaking in 2005 about the furor over Dana Priest's important story in The Washington Post revealing that the CIA was maintaining a series of "black sites" abroad where terrorism detainees were interrogated. For this, Priest came under searing attack from allies of the George W. Bush administration.
Smith's letter was sent to President Obama in 2012. It complained about national security leaks that set off the very investigation which this week prompted fury over the Justice Department's seizure of two months' worth of telephone records from a group of Associated Press reporters.
Isn't it odd that many Republicans who demanded a thorough investigation a year ago are now condemning the Justice Department for doing what they asked for? Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus even called on Attorney General Eric Holder to resign, saying he had "trampled on the First Amendment."
It's a funny thing about media leaks: They are either courageous or outrageous, depending on whether they help or hurt your political party.
Forgive me for feeling cynical and depressed about our nation's political conversation. Scandalmania is distorting our discussion of three different issues, sweeping them into one big narrative -- everything is a "narrative" these days -- about the beleaguered second-term presidency of Barack Obama.
What's being buried under a story line?
On leaks, I don't believe that the media have unlimited immunity. But I am very pro-leak because such disclosures are often the only way citizens in a free society can find out things they need to know. The Justice Department's actions in the AP case seem to go way beyond what is justified or necessary. There was no need to ignore guidelines suggesting that news organizations should usually have the chance to negotiate or challenge subpoenas.
Holder recused himself from the case, and the White House, which is, in effect, a subject of the investigation, can plausibly claim it was unaware of the decision.
Nonetheless, liberals have reason to contest the Obama administration on civil liberties questions. What's entertaining is to watch so many Republicans (let's exempt the consistent libertarians) reverse a decade of hard-line positions on national security matters and speak now as if they were card-carrying members of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Then there is the IRS's targeting tea party groups for special scrutiny in applications for 501(c)(4) status. Of course this was wrong -- and stupid. Liberals were incensed when the IRS questioned the tax status of several progressive groups during the Bush administration. The IRS needs to be ultra-scrupulous about political neutrality, period. That's why Obama came out late Wednesday to announce a shake-up at the agency.
But the other scandal -- as The Washington Post's Ezra Klein and Ruth Marcus and MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell have all suggested -- is that any groups involved in partisan electioneering are being granted standing as "social welfare" organizations, allowing them to hide the identity of their donors. A bad mistake could compound the IRS's timidity on the 501(c)(4) issue.
And finally, Benghazi, the "scandal" that seems to be all smoke and no gun. The House could have spent its energy trying to figure out what led to this tragedy, why diplomats were in such a dangerous place, and how to protect brave Foreign Service officers in the future. Congress could even have asked itself whether it's providing enough money for the task. But focusing on the narrow concern of who did what to a set of talking points (and bloviating about this episode as a new "Watergate") takes what could be a legitimate inquiry and turns it into a political carnival.
I know, I know: This "confluence" of "scandals" spells "trouble" for the Obama administration. Well, sure, this has been hell week for the president. But what spells trouble for our country is our apparent eagerness to avoid debate about discrete problems by sacrificing the particulars and the facts to the idol of political narrative. It's a false god.
(c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group
About the Author
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).