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Times article drills down deeper toward roots of IRS screw-up

How did this practice of focusing on Tea Party-related organizations begin?

The New York Times ran a story on Sunday that digs much closer to the source of the IRS/Tea Party-targeting blunder.

For “scandalgate” purposes, the key finding is that the practice of scrutinizing Tea Party applications for tax exempt status emerged as a bunch of relatively low-level IRS officials struggled with more work than they could handle and less supervision than they needed. It’s actually a pretty boring story.

Once the klieg lights of scandal have blinked on, the story is all about Republicans trying to assign responsibility for the screw-up as close to the Oval Office as they can get. If so, this story is a deep flesh wound to the scandal mongerers. I can’t say it’s a mortal wound, of course. The Times has no subpoena power nor were any of its witnesses under oath. Many of the sources are not named, although plenty of them are. The main point of this aside is not to exaggerate the exculpatory nature of the Times findings and to note that the smoking gun of high-up political motives may yet be discovered by those who do have the power to compel testimony.

But, instead of starting their research from the goal of tracing the mess as close to the Oval Office as possible, the Times seems to have started by asking: How did this practice of focusing on Tea Party-related organizations begin? The story (which has three bylines at the top and credits four more reporters at the bottom) summarizes its findings thus:

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While there are still many gaps in the story of how the I.R.S. scandal happened, interviews with current and former employees and with lawyers who dealt with them, along with a review of I.R.S. documents, paint a more muddled picture of an understaffed Cincinnati outpost that was alienated from the broader I.R.S. culture and given little direction.

Overseen by a revolving cast of midlevel managers, stalled by miscommunication with I.R.S. lawyers and executives in Washington and confused about the rules they were enforcing, the Cincinnati specialists flagged virtually every application with Tea Party in its name. But their review went beyond conservative groups: more than 400 organizations came under scrutiny, including at least two dozen liberal-leaning ones and some that were seemingly apolitical.

Over three years, as the office struggled with a growing caseload of advocacy groups seeking tax exemptions, responsibility for the cases moved from one group of specialists to another, and the Determinations Unit, which handles all nonprofit applications, was reorganized. One batch of cases sat ignored for months. Few if any of the employees were experts on tax law, contributing to waves of questionnaires about groups’ political activity and donors that top officials acknowledge were improper.

On a related note: After writing in her Wall Street Journal column that the IRS mess was “the worst political scandal since Watergate,” Peggy Noonan was challenged by “Meet the Press” moderator David Gregory to compare the enormous level of direct Nixonian involvement in Watergate to the (so far) utter lack of any Obamian fingerprints on IRS-gate (or whatever we’re going to call it).

Replied Noonan“The President wasn’t passive on that stuff. He was giving dog whistle sounds.”

The argument here, and Noonan credited her Wall Street Journal teammate Kim Strassel for developing it in a column headlined “The IRS Scandal Started at the Top,” is that during the campaign, Obama criticized various conservative and Republican groups (that’s the “whistle”) and what the “dogs” (that’s the IRS) hear is that the president is directing them to harass those whom the president criticizes.

If Obama wants to be blameless, all he has to do is refrain from publicly criticizing his political opponents.

Writing for Salon, Joan Walsh suggests that the dog whistle argument is an admission by the Republican establishment that they aren’t going to be able find any Obamian fingerprints on this mess.