"What kicked off the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of Tea Party groups?"
Sean Higgins of the Washington Examiner raises an interesting question. "The Treasury Department's Inspector General apparently knows but the rest of us cannot. His report on the scandal includes three timelines of events, but in each case, the first item in the timeline has been redacted."
"The mystery date was apparently February 25, 2010," he concludes from reading the reports. "...The reference to February in both appendixes indicates something particularly noteworthy happened then in the evolution of the IRS's policy. What was it?"
On the theory that media reports might have been involved (since the agency says media reports led to the end of the special scrutiny of Tea Party and other conservative groups in February 2012), I went back and read through some of the national newspaper coverage on the Tea Party groups in mid-to-late February of 2010.
There was a big David Barstow piece in the New York Times on Feb. 12, 2010, examining the political aspirations of Tea Party and other groups: "Tea Party Lights Fuse for Rebellion on Right." Within the first five paragraphs, it mentions the Tea Party, the Sandpoint Tea Party Patriots, Friends for Liberty, Glenn Beck's 9/12 Project, the John Birch Society, and Oath Keepers, described as "a new player in a resurgent militia movement." As the Times described it:
The Tea Party movement has become a platform for conservative populist discontent, a force in Republican politics for revival, as it was in the Massachusetts Senate election, or for division. But it is also about the profound private transformation of people like Mrs. Stout, people who not long ago were not especially interested in politics, yet now say they are bracing for tyranny.
These people are part of a significant undercurrent within the Tea Party movement that has less in common with the Republican Party than with the Patriot movement, a brand of politics historically associated with libertarians, militia groups, anti-immigration advocates and those who argue for the abolition of the Federal Reserve.
Urged on by conservative commentators, waves of newly minted activists are turning to once-obscure books and Web sites and discovering a set of ideas long dismissed as the preserve of conspiracy theorists, interviews conducted across the country over several months show. In this view, Mr. Obama and many of his predecessors (including George W. Bush) have deliberately undermined the Constitution and free enterprise for the benefit of a shadowy international network of wealthy elites.
Loose alliances like Friends for Liberty are popping up in many cities, forming hybrid entities of Tea Parties and groups rooted in the Patriot ethos. These coalitions are not content with simply making the Republican Party more conservative. They have a larger goal -- a political reordering that would drastically shrink the federal government and sweep away not just Mr. Obama, but much of the Republican establishment, starting with Senator John McCain....
The ebbs and flows of the Tea Party ferment are hardly uniform. It is an amorphous, factionalized uprising with no clear leadership and no centralized structure. Not everyone flocking to the Tea Party movement is worried about dictatorship. Some have a basic aversion to big government, or Mr. Obama, or progressives in general. What's more, some Tea Party groups are essentially appendages of the local Republican Party. (emphasis added)
It's a really long and interesting piece, and worth a read as a reminder of what the Tea Party movement looked like earlier in its development, when it was a more fiery force.
What else happened in February 2010? The first National Tea Party Convention in Nashville, Tenn., featuring a major speech by Sarah Palin, the former Republican vice-presidential nominee. The New York Times lede on that story, published on Feb. 6: "As Sarah Palin left the stage at the inaugural National Tea Party Convention here Saturday night, the crowd erupted into chants of 'Run Sarah Run!'" The headline? "Palin Assails Obama at Tea Party Meeting." More suggestions of active electoral political activity.
And then this caught my eye.
On February 23, 2010, Robert Wright, writing for the Times' Opinionator blog, looked at "The First Tea Party Terrorist?" His column on the Andrew Joseph Stack incident is chilling in retrospect and in light of the IRS's subsequent decision to begin sorting exemption applications for groups with "Tea Party, "Patriot" "9/12" and other conservative buzzwords in their names for referral to a specialist.
On February 18th, Stack had flown a small airplane into an IRS office in Austin, Texas, killing himself and IRS agent Vernon Hunter and injuring 13 on the ground. Stack left behind a six-page rant against the federal government and the IRS. His conclusion: "I saw it written once that the definition of insanity is repeating the same process over and over and expecting the outcome to suddenly be different. I am finally ready to stop this insanity. Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let's try something different; take my pound of flesh and sleep well."
Readers took issue with Wright's description of Stack as a Tea Party type, leading to him to update the column to note: "When I said in this column that you could in principle follow my logic to conclude that Joseph Stack was a Tea Party terrorist, I should have added the explicit reminder that this logic depended on accepting the somewhat squishy definition of 'Tea Party' ideology that, I argue, is appropriate given the still-inchoate nature of the movement." Frank Rich later took issue with Wright (who, full disclosure, blogged for TheAtlantic.com in 2012), arguing that "Stack was a lone madman, and it would be both glib and inaccurate to call him a card-carrying Tea Partier or a 'Tea Party terrorist.'" But writers from other media outlets also piled on, according to a roundup published in the National Review Online, connecting Stack and the growing Tea Party and anti-government movement.
"After reading his 34-paragraph screed, I am struck by how his alienation is similar to that we're hearing from the extreme elements of the Tea Party movement," wrote Jonathan Capeheart of the Washington Post in a blog item. According to a piece on Fox News:
Joseph Stack, the 53-year-old software engineer who crashed his small plane into a seven-story office building in Austin, Texas, was part of a growing, violent anti-tax and anti-government movement that has become increasingly alarming to law enforcement agencies.
Stack, who torched his home Thursday morning before setting out on his suicide flight, was fueled by his hatred of the Internal Revenue Service, which had offices and employed nearly 200 workers in the building.
Stack was not a member of his local group, the Austin Tea Party Patriots, as its founders repeatedly tried to make clear in February 2010.
We don't know what led the IRS to begin looking more closely at Tea Party groups and the conservative anti-government movement. But if you want to know how the Tea Party and the IRS and electoral politics were being discussed in February 2010, there's your answer.