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The Boston Globe

Opinion

derrick z. jackson

It’s Nixon Week at the White House

From Tea Party scrutiny to news-leak paranoia, what era is it, anyway?

President Barack Obama spoke Monday during a joint news conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

President Obama spoke Monday during a joint news conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

It is Nixon Week at the White House.

First President Obama denied knowing anything about the special scrutiny the Internal Revenue Service gave conservative tax-exempt groups. In 2010, the IRS began targeting groups with “Tea Party” or “Patriot” in their names, or had slogans critical of how the country was being run, such as “Take Back the Country” or wanting to “make America a better place to live.”

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Obama indignantly told reporters Monday that this targeting was “outrageous” and “contrary to our traditions.” But hours after he spoke, The Associated Press reported that the Justice Department secretly seized two months of home and office phone records of its reporters.

The AP believed the seizure was related to its May 2012 story about an Al Qaeda terrorist airplane bombing plot that was foiled by the Central Intelligence Agency. The story contained leaked information. According to The New York Times, the Obama administration has indicted more current and former officials in leaking cases than all administrations combined.

Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department gave no direct reason for the seizure, which the Newspaper Association of America said shocks “the American conscience.” Gary Pruitt, chief executive officer of the AP, wrote Holder to protest that the seizure was “a massive and unprecedented intrusion” of constitutional rights.

Obama claimed to know nothing of this, either. But with two witch-hunt scandals on its hands, the Obama White House is evoking the Kennedy administration’s abuse of the IRS to harass right-wing groups and the Nixon administration’s abuse of the IRS to attack more liberal political opponents. The electronic raid on the AP instantly begs comparisons to Nixon’s enemies list, which included many journalists, and the decades of FBI programs to discredit and destroy disfavored people and organizations.

No one should remember this with more urgency than the nation’s first African-American president and first African-American attorney general. So many abuses of the past century targeted the most important black figures in American history from Marcus Garvey in the 1920s to Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers in the 1960s.

In his 1989 book “Racial Matters: The FBI’s Secret File on Black America,” Kenneth O’Reilly wrote that in the summer of 1942, the FBI, under the infamous J. Edgar Hoover, launched its “most systemic Negro Question investigation” ever to gauge any “un-American” sentiment. It investigated all black-owned newspapers, bugged the offices of major civil rights groups, and spread disinformation about the NAACP and the National Urban League.

Although Hoover often acted on his own, he almost always had the blessing or acquiescence of the White House. Even as progress was being made on civil rights, the FBI maintained a “Security Index.” In the 1960s, nearly 1,500 of the 10,000 names were those black Americans, including King, and the FBI added the names of 400 more African-Americans in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, leading to the “Rabble Rouser Index,” the “Agitator Index,” and disruption efforts against “black hate” groups.

The tension between surface progress and unseen skulduggery was captured by O’Reilly in discussing the relationship between Hoover and President Johnson, who signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, but increasingly was demoralized by riots and antiwar protests.

“Lyndon Johnson might have been ignorant about the details surrounding the ‘black hate’ disruption effort, and it is possible, perhaps likely, that he was not even aware of its existence,” O’Reilly wrote. “Yet Hoover and his principal aides interpreted the president’s obsession with militants and nationalists, and as well with those civil rights leaders who opposed the Vietnam War, as an Oval Office grant of authority to do whatever was necessary to neutralize them.”

That is the danger Obama and Holder face. Did people in the IRS believe that the Oval Office in some way granted them the authority to target conservative tax-exempt groups? Why did Holder’s deputy, James M. Cole, grant investigators authority to raid The Associated Press?

Obama and Holder must stop this before this Oval Office is stained forever. In fretting about the Tea Party and leaks to the press, the Obama who promised us unprecedented transparency is rendering an unprecedented display of paranoia and abridgement of freedom.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.

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