Our Views: Government overstepping boundaries

As a newspaper, we have an obvious and direct interest in freedom of expression, and that makes us especially concerned about the federal government’s recent overreach on two fronts.

The Internal Revenue Service, which is responsible for ensuring that nonprofits don’t violate their tax-exempt status by sponsoring political advertising, has admitted that it singled out conservative groups for extra scrutiny.

Many conservatives and liberals have rightly denounced the agency’s practices, and for good reason. A federal agency has no business identifying groups or individuals for possible enforcement actions based strictly on the group’s political leanings. We suspect that this wrong-headed practice had more to do with bureaucratic expedience than a political agenda. Chris Ashby, a lawyer who advises conservative groups, told The New York Times that the IRS might have focused on smaller groups because they seemed less likely to contest closer reviews. That possibility, if true, is equally disturbing, suggesting a bureaucratic bully seeking the path of least resistance.

Another controversy involves the U.S. Justice Department’s secret subpoena of the phone records of more than 100 Associated Press journalists, apparently as part of an investigation into the leaking of information regarding Central Intelligence Agency activities in Yemen.

“In the 30 years since the Department issued guidelines governing its subpoena practice as it relates to phone records from journalists, none of us can remember an instance where such an overreaching dragnet for newsgathering materials was deployed by the Department, particularly without notice to the affected reporters or an opportunity to seek judicial review,” a group of professional media organizations wrote in a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole.

We believe that the recent actions by the IRS and the Justice Department are abuses of government power. We add our voice to those of other Americans who are rightly concerned.

We’re sure that Congress will be convening committee hearings to review these issues, and the prospect of partisan grandstanding at these hearings makes us queasy. The ultimate goal of such congressional oversight shouldn’t be political theater, but a search for the truth. Americans need to know what went wrong so that such abuses can be prevented in the future.