Capitol succumbs to scandal fever

Questioned by the FBI: US Attorney-General Eric Holder. Photo: JEFF HAYNESScandal fever has so thoroughly gripped Washington some players were having difficulty distinguishing one from another on Tuesday.

Asked what he thought about snowballing controversy over revelations the Justice Department had secretly seized phone records of Associated Press reporters, one Democratic congressman, Steny Hoyer, launched into an attack on the Internal Revenue Service, the agency at the centre of an entirely different scandal, in which the tax office targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.

When it was gently pointed out that he had the wrong scandal, he apologised, then paused and said: ”Whatever happened, we need to find out why it happened. But clearly it should not have happened. I don’t know enough about whether there was a warrant sought.”

His confusion was understandable. The scandal trail in DC remains far more obscured by smoke than lit by fire.

The AP controversy broke on Friday after the news agency reported it had been notified of the seizure of phone records as part of an investigation into a leak. That led to an AP report, which in turn caused a sensitive anti-terrorism operation to be shut down.

It is not clear the government broke any laws in seizing information, nor that the White House was aware it had happened but it does appear to be one of the greatest intrusions ever by the US government into a media operation.

The department’s head, Attorney-General Eric Holder, said he had recused himself from the investigation because the FBI had questioned him as a potential source of the leak.

Mr Holder also remains at the centre of the IRS scandal, having ordered a criminal investigation. So far, there is no evidence any member of President Barack Obama’s staff knew a government agency was targeting its political enemies, though this is the smoking gun Republicans are seeking. On Tuesday night, Mr Obama said he had read the internal IRS report and found its findings ”intolerable and inexcusable”.

In the face of all this inflamed rhetoric, the revelation the IRS had also investigated Democrat groups passed with little comment.

Controversy over the attack on the diplomatic post in Benghazi also continues. The key allegation remains that the White House sought to recast the attack as the result of a spontaneous protest by Libyans rather than an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist attack.

The claim has not been proved, though it has emerged the State Department had a hand in altering ”talking points” officials used to describe the assault. It also appears the humble ”consulate” was more likely a CIA outpost.

The White House press corps badgered Mr Obama’s normally unflappable spokesman, Jay Carney, during the daily briefing on Tuesday. Time and again he was called on to comment on the administration’s record of prosecuting more leakers than all previous administrations combined.

”President Obama’s being compared to President Nixon on this,” a Reuters reporter noted. ”How does he feel about that?”

Mr Carney was reduced to saying he ”appreciated” the questions and Mr Obama believed in journalists’ ”unfettered” right to report.

”How can it be unfettered if you’re worried about having your phone records seized?” a reporter responded.

Pundits left the briefing to write about the ”second-term curse”, while Politico made a video montage of Mr Carney declaring his appreciation of questions – 131 times.

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