It's really hard to measure tyranny. There's a lot of room between a libertarian sea-steading utopia and the totalitarian dystopia of North Korea. But it's tough for pundits to decide just where to draw the line, especially when confronted with a menu of issues that includes NSA data gathering, IRS targeting of conservative groups, and Justice Department subpoenas of reporters email. To help you keep up with where everyone stands on tyranny, we've put together this helpful diagram.
We've collected the various analyses of Obama's controversies into this handy chart, showing which people find which stories to show true tyranny. For the IRS story, we only included pundits who thought there was reason to believe the IRS was acting on White House orders. The pundits are: Kirsten Powers, David Brooks, Joe Klein, Jennifer Rubin, Karl Rove, Glenn Greenwald, Bill O'Reilly, Megyn Kelly, John Bolton, The Wall Street Journal editorial page, George Will, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Maureen Dowd, Bill Kristol, and Ann Coulter.
It is tough to find consistencies. Lots of people are coming to the conclusion that President Obama has become a Stalinist crusher of hope, but they can't agree on exactly why. Some, like Limbaugh, see all these scandals — plus Fast and Furious and Obamacare — as mounting evidence for his long-held conclusion that Obama is a power-mad tyrant. that show Obama is leading a "coup d'etat" against... someone.
But then there's people like Time's Joe Klein. On May 14, he wrote that he was troubled by the Justice Department's subpoenaing of Associated Press phone records, and the emails of Fox News reporter James Rosen, as part of a national security leak investigation. Klein said:
Apparently, what has happened in this case, is that the Justice Department short-circuited prior practices, received secret subpoena authority (from the FISA court?) and covertly went after the information that it had requested in the past. That seems to be a substantial rewriting of the rules, a significant truncation of First Amendment rights.
On Monday, Klein wrote of the NSA's PRISM program, and its collection of phone call metadata under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. These have been subject to the very same critiques — that the government's legal justification has been made in secret, and has evolved to be more broad over time, and that it has swept up far more information. And yet Klein writes that this is a "civil liberties freakout":
Yes, I expect that some of my phone and email traffic has been picked up in the data trawling. I travel fairly frequently to places like Iran, Afghanistan, Egypt, the West Bank... I have no problem with the government knowing that I’m doing my job.
Klein initially said the IRS showed Obama was "on the same page as Nixon." But he walked that criticism back, saying that in Nixon's case, "depredations came from the White House," while in Obama's case, they "percolated from the middle." So there's only one count on the Obama tyrant indictment in Klein's book.
The same could be said for USA Today columnist and Fox News commentator Kirsten Powers. Powers was appalled by the Justice Department's pursuit of Rosen and the AP. "They've created all kinds of legal theories to justify what they have done," Kirsten Powers said on Fox News on May 20. But last week, Powers did not see those elements in the NSA program. She explained, "I didn’t have a problem with it under Bush, and I don’t have a problem with it now, as long as it is done through the FISA court..."
Then, as New York's Jonathan Chait writes, you have conservatives like Karl Rove and The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol, who see the IRS targeting as evidence of Obama's mericless pursuit of political enemies, but the NSA program as perfectly reasonable. "I would be very cautious about lumping what the administration has done on these other instances, the IRS, the AP, James Rosen and Benghazi, with this, which is not being directed out of the White House," Rove said. Last weekend, Kristol agreed on Fox News Sunday, "Conservatives and Republicans are making a huge mistake" to compare the NSA with the IRS, because the NSA gets more oversight — even if it's secret -- than the IRS did. "[NSA agents are] not allowed to go into that data until they have a warrant signed off on by a judge. That is totally different from the IRS abuses, which I think are very serious, and I think it’s very important for conservatives and Republicans to make that distinction." The Wall Street Journal's editorial page holds the same position:
The NSA is collecting less information than appears on a monthly phone bill (no names), but Americans would worry less about the government spying on them if, for example, the Justice Department wasn't secretly spying on the Associated Press and Fox News. Or if the IRS wasn't targeting White House critics.
At The New Republic, Robert Chesney and Benjamin Wittes write that while the NSA's PRISM program is not surprising or unsettling — it's expected that the government will spy indiscriminately on other countries — the phone metadata program is. The phone story shows "something significantly new concerning a claimed authority about which the public was not previously informed." They say, "it is surprising to learn both that the government thinks it already has this authority under Section 215, and still more so that the FISA Court agrees and that members of Congress know this as well."
Fox News' Bill O'Reilly has the opposite interpretation of the NSA's two programs. Collecting the phone call metadata is "permissible under the Constitution," he declared, but as for PRISM, "it's unconstitutional if the content of your private emails is being stored by the government." Tying the IRS, the DOJ, and the NSA all together, O'Reilly concluded, "the federal government is out of control," thanks to "President Obama's management style."
The Washington Post's George Will has scoffed at the idea that the White House didn't direct the IRS to attack its enemies, comparing that scandal to Watergate in May, and then rounded up all the scandals as an indictment of Obama's "big government." On Sunday, Will argued, "This is where the IRS scandal metastasizes into a national security scandal… I’m sure I’m not the only American saying — looking at the NSA information gathering and saying, 'Well, this would really be a problem if we had the kind of government that, say, unleashes the IRS on political opponents. Oh, come to think about it, we do have that kind of government.'"
It's a terribly confusing time to be in the tyranny labeling business.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.