May 16, 2013 7:59 pm

Obama under pressure over IRS scandal

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Republicans launch the first of a series of congressional inquiries on Friday into the targeting of conservative activists by the Internal Revenue Service in an effort to connect the White House directly to the scandal.

Barack Obama forced out the acting head of the US tax collection agency late on Wednesday, and also released 100 pages of emails about the handling of the deadly attack on the US consulate in Benghazi last September.

A second senior IRS official, who was in charge of the division under scrutiny, stepped down on Thursday. Mr Obama also announced a new acting director for the agency, Daniel Werfel, an official at the budget office.

Under fire for not engaging on either issue, the White House is attempting to get ahead of both controversies before they swamp the president’s ability to shape issues on Capitol Hill, notably immigration reform.

Conservatives have alleged for months that the White House blocked details of the role played by terrorists in the Benghazi attack for political purposes in the midst of last year’s election campaign, an allegation hinted at, but not substantiated by, the emails.

The White House has also been fending off criticism in a third controversy, saying it had no knowledge that the justice department had secretly obtained the records of Associated Press journalists and editors in a leak inquiry.

The IRS issue contains the greatest danger for the administration, as it involves a supposedly non-partisan agency which has long been a much disliked symbol on the right of government over-reach.

“The truth will come out, it always does,” said Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican minority leader.

Asked if anyone in the White House had knowledge about the IRS actions before this week, Mr Obama said that he personally had not, and that his main focus now was “on fixing a problem”.

Mr Obama said the various inquiries under way into the IRS, including a criminal investigation by the FBI, should ensure the country found out “who was involved, what went wrong and how we can fix it”.

The IRS is responsible for scrutinising the applications for tax-exempt status of groups involved in so-called policy and political education, which many critics say should be regulated as campaign organisations.

The number of groups applying for tax-exempt status has soared in recent years as the courts have removed most limits on donating to them. Tax-exempt groups do not have to disclose their donors.

Mr McConnell cited one case in which he said the IRS had disclosed the donor list of a conservative group, the National Organisation for Marriage, to a rival group on the left.

“Significantly, one of the NoM donors whose name was leaked was none other than Mitt Romney. What a coincidence!” he said.

The congressional committee hearings in the House of Representatives and the Senate are ostensibly bipartisan, with both Republicans and Democrats condemning the agency’s actions.

But in the short term, the finding by the Treasury watchdog overseeing the IRS that conservatives had been “inappropriately” targeted puts the administration in the spotlight.

The watchdog report also found that the IRS officials in its Cincinnati offices responsible for scrutinising the tax-exempt groups had not taken any outside direction, but that has not ended Republican attacks.

“The president has to be honest about the culture of intimidation that his administration has created,” said Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida.

Asked about the leak inquiry into AP at a press conference, Mr Obama struck an unapologetic tone, saying the leak could endanger US military and intelligence officials offshore and harm national security.

“Leaks can put men and women I have sent into battle at risk,” he said, while stressing he was not commenting on the AP case.

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