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Column: Washington-gate

By David Rohde

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Unprecedented Justice Department searches of journalists' phone records. IRS targeting of conservative political groups. Spiraling sexual assault rates in the U.S. military. And the downplaying of the first killing of an American ambassador in 30 years.

In a matter of days, alarming accounts have emerged regarding the actions of five key U.S. federal government bureaucracies: the Justice Department, the Internal Revenue Service, the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon.

For commentators on the right, the reports are final proof of the raft of conspiracy theories focused on President Barack Obama. For commentators on left, they are non-scandals that Republicans exaggerate for political gain. Obama is either the devil or Obama is an angel. Our endless left-right debate misses more serious problems.

For liberals, the reports are a worrying sign of Obama's struggles to carry out his second-term agenda. For conservatives, they show that even if a Republican wins the White House, Washington is increasing unmanageable.

First, Obama's woes. Some of his wounds are self-inflicted. For five years the Obama administration has displayed a destructive tendency to try to have it both ways. In a press conference Thursday, the president did so again.

In lawyerly responses, Obama said he supported journalists' constitutional right to report but stood by the fact that his administration has carried out more criminal leak investigations than all previous administrations combined. He called for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but prevaricated on how the United States would respond to apparent Syrian government chemical weapons attacks.

Obama came into office promising openness. But from counter-terrorism to domestic policy, his White House has been secretive, insular and controlling. Yes, Republicans are bent on destroying Obama's presidency, but an aloof president has alienated his Democratic allies.

Congress is no better. Each two-year term seems to set new standards for political trench warfare. One-third of the committees in the Republican-controlled House are investigating the administration. Some on the far right call for Obama's impeachment.

During President George W. Bush's second term, a similar pattern emerged. Representative Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) carried out exhaustive hearings on the administration's misdeeds in Iraq. And some talked of impeaching Bush. The current Republican effort is broader than the Democratic one. But the goal is the same: Smear one's opponent first, legislate second.

Smear is the operative word as well in an increasingly partisan news media. Commentators on Fox and MSNBC earn millions oversimplifying complex problems, denigrating their political opponents and pandering to the far right and far left. Fox has been consistently worse.

After months of pedaling Benghazi conspiracy theories, Fox's Sean Hannity declared this week that the IRS was targeting "those that desire to make America a better place to live." Roger Ailes and company look likely to again overplay their hand and, unintentionally, help Obama.

The IRS actions, from targeting conservative tax-exempt organizations to lying to members of Congress, were outrageous. But so far, no evidence has emerged that the White House knew of the effort. And responsibility for the soaring number of sexual assaults in the military lies primarily with Pentagon, not the White House.

But both scandals show a larger problem. Legislative deadlock makes governance more difficult. Ambiguous regulations have complicated the IRS's job of screening political groups. And there is limited agreement in Congress on how to reform the military's antiquated system for prosecuting sexual assault.

Regarding Benghazi, there are some criticisms that can and should be made of the administration. Locked in a fiercely contested re-election campaign, Obama downplayed the role of al Qaeda in the attack in his initial public statements.

But Republicans exaggerate the impact of the careful terminology Obama used. At most, the effort succeeded for several weeks. By Election Day, the fact that al Qaeda-linked terrorists had killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans was well known.

Far-right claims that Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton personally blocked aid to Benghazi before or during the attack are baseless and absurd. Neither would want an American ambassador killed in the middle of a presidential campaign.

Instead, blame for Benghazi lies across the government.

House Republicans' rejection of $450 million in State Department requests for additional security funding since 2010 intensified the department's dependence on private contractors to guard its facilities. When the Libyan government banned such firms, the department's understaffed Diplomatic Security Service had only a handful of personnel to deploy in Libya. Charlene Lamb and three other State Department officials were relieved of their duties after rejecting repeated requests for additional security from American officials in Libya.

Privately, career diplomats have also questioned Stevens' decision-making. They expressed surprise at his choice to spend the nights of September 10 and 11 in Benghazi, which had already experienced a series of anti-Western attacks. Brief, unpredictable day visits make it more difficult for attackers to plan assaults, they said.

And as Jake Tapper correctly pointed out in a May 15 piece for CNN, the Benghazi facility was, in fact, primarily a CIA outpost. Of the roughly 30 people evacuated from the site, 20 were CIA employees. State Department officials had an informal arrangement with the CIA to provide security if needed. When the attack unfolded, both the CIA and military were unprepared.

The 100 pages of emails released by the White House on Wednesday raise more questions for Clinton than for Obama. The State Department, not the White House, mounted an intensive effort to eliminate references to al Qaeda from much-disputed talking points. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, for example, should disclose who she was referring to when she cited the concerns of her "building leadership."

In the weeks ahead, perceptions of Obama will likely harden. The right will see him as dastardly. The left will view him as a victim of Washington's gutter politics. Most probably, his biggest sin is being aloof and disengaged.

But Obama's failings are only part of the problem. An increasingly polarized Washington is devouring its own. Ceaseless, take-no-prisoners political warfare, not nefarious White House plots, ravages government.

(David Rohde is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)

(David Rohde is a columnist for Reuters, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a former reporter for The New York Times. His latest book, "Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East," was published in April.)

(David Rohde)

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