I saw Noam Chomsky on C-SPAN the other day in a panel discussion on “Race, Gender and Class.” He was asked about the dirty tricks of the Nixon administration during the time he was a leading theoretician of the New Left.
“Nixon’s enemies list was nothing,” he said. “We hear so much about it today. I was on Nixon’s enemies list. They never even audited my taxes.”
Nearly a year ago, the Joint Committee on Taxation, outraged by my expose of the way the Internal Revenue Service was hunting down those unfriendly to the Clinton administration, set out to investigate the clear pattern of political audits.
Having been targeted myself by the administration in memos and a 331-page report distributed to select media outlets and then audited by the IRS, the announcement by Rep. Bill Archer, R-TX, momentarily restored my faith in the system. Maybe, I thought, this is still America. Perhaps there was a controlling legal authority, even for those high officials who would place themselves above the law. Maybe this is still a nation of laws where abuse of power would not go unpunished. I was even more encouraged when IRS Commissioner Margaret Milner Richardson resigned and my expose was cited by some as the principal reason.
Meanwhile, the committee charged its staff with conducting an investigation and issuing a report by last September. By the summer, when I had not yet been contacted by the committee for testimony, I was growing skeptical that any investigation would be forthcoming. And when September came and went, I had given up any hope that this Congress was interested in the law, the truth or justice.
Well, lo and behold, last week I got a letter from the committee. The staff wants me to come to Washington to tell them what I know — behind closed doors, of course. But here’s a summary of what they will hear.
In late 1994, when the Clinton White House had grave doubts about its political future, the counsel’s office became the nerve center of a dirty tricks campaign that would make Richard Nixon blush. Documents later released to congressional investigators show that what could only be described as an “enemies list” was compiled. The only journalists to make the cut were me and Christopher Ruddy. We were targeted for some kind of unspecified action or neutralization by this memo.
A more detailed and fanciful list known as the “Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce” came later. The point of this brief, in which I was the only journalist profiled, was pure disinformation. It implied that the administration’s myriad “scandals” had all been manufactured by a small group of ideological co-conspirators.
Then came the IRS audit — coincidence, of course. Never mind the fact that the IRS agent announced to us on his first visit that, “This is a political case and the decision will be made at the national level.” And never mind that my organization was one of about 20 unfriendly to the Clinton administration that had been targeted by the IRS. Coincidence. Bad stuff happens.
Now, I hear, the committee is looking for a “smoking gun” that would prove — unequivocally by courtroom standards — that the White House was manipulating the IRS for political reasons. The members want to see a memo or something from the president to Richardson directing that his enemies be targeted. Unfortunately, I am not in possession of such a document. If one existed, it has probably been shredded by now.
But, of course, we’ll never know until a congressional committee or independent investigator with subpoena power begins asking questions, searching for clues, looking under rocks. The Joint Committee on Taxation does not appear to be such a body.
This administration appears far too clever for its critics. It has outmaneuvered Congress at every step. It’s as if only one side in this conflict realizes that a struggle for the very heart and soul of a nation is at stake. It’s as if only one side is playing for keeps. It’s either that or Congress has become a toothless paper tiger unable and unwilling to reassert its historic power.
Meanwhile, we survived the IRS audit — barely. We cut our programs, our staff and our publications to pay for the mounting attorney and accounting fees and staff time it consumed. The black cloud the audit created still hangs over our heads when we seek foundation grants — even though our tax-exempt status was ultimately extended.
But I’ll play it out. I’ll go to Washington. I’ll tell my story. And I’ll hope for the best. Maybe, just maybe, it’s not too late for America to wake up.