May 13, 2013

Sen. Collins: IRS scrutiny of conservative groups 'chilling'

The Maine senator also says a decision to drop terrorist references from the Benghazi talking points was a political one.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON - U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said Sunday the recent confirmation that the Internal Revenue Service had subjected conservative and tea party groups to extra scrutiny was "outrageous" and called on President Obama to speak out more forcefully against the incidents.

Speaking on CNN's "State of the Union" program, the moderate Maine Republican said news that some groups with the words "tea party" and "patriot" in their names had had their applications for nonprofit status held up by the IRS merely contributes to the public's "profound distrust" in government.

"It is absolutely chilling that the IRS was singling out conservative groups for extra review, and I think it's very disappointing that the president hasn't personally condemned this and spoken out," Collins said. "His spokesman has said that it needs to be investigated, but the president needs to make crystal clear that this is totally unacceptable in America."

On Friday, a top IRS official publicly acknowledged what some conservative groups have been claiming for months, that politics were behind delays in their receiving nonprofit tax status from the IRS. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Obama was "concerned" about the reported behavior "of a small number" of IRS employees.

"I just don't buy that this was a couple of rogue IRS employees," Collins said. "After all, groups with 'progressive' in their names were not targeted similarly. And there is evidence that higher-level supervisors were aware of this and the IRS was not forthcoming in telling Congress about the problem.

"This is truly outrageous and it contributes to the profound distrust that the American people have in government."

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., echoed Collins on "Fox News Sunday." The House Intelligence Committee chairman called for an external investigation into the matter, with congressional oversight.

"This should send a chill up your spine. This is something we cannot let stand. It needs to have a full investigation," Rogers said.

An inspector general's report set to be released this week says IRS officials knew about the targeting of conservative groups as early as 2011, months before the agency's commissioner told Congress it wasn't taking place.

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., adopted a different tone. He said on "Fox News Sunday" the matter is "definitely worth looking into," but made clear that he is "not going to leap to conclusions based on initial reports."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said on NBC News's "Meet The Press" that she is "concerned" about the matter and that lawmakers "have to take a good look at it."

On another controversial topic, Collins also said on CNN that it was clear to her that politics were involved in the decision to drop any reference to al-Qaida from administration talking points on September's terrorist attacks on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya.

Collins said she believes last week's hearings on the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks and the response provided some new information on the scope of the changes to the talking points used by United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice on Sunday morning talk shows soon after the attacks. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the attacks.

"I don't think we could have gotten help there in time to save the ambassador and the information officer, but I do believe that help could have been sent in time to prevent the further deaths," she told Crowley.

Collins was the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last year when the committee investigated the Benghazi attacks. At the time, a CIA official told the panel there was no national security reason to drop references to terrorist groups from the talking points.

"So clearly politics was at play here," Collins said.

Collins suggested that the administration changed the talking points because it was trying to portray Libya as a success story and show that al-Qaida was on the run, but the attacks "proved that neither of those narratives was accurate."

An issue during the presidential campaign, the handling of the Benghazi attacks has again become a heated and oftentimes partisan issue on Capitol Hill.

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

kmiller@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @KevinMillerDC

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