Another hot summer week in Washington, another scandal for President Obama.
And this one was a shocker: Turns out the president has been doing — Wait, what? Exactly what presidents have been doing since 1978? Stop the presses!
A breathless report from a British paper last week declared that the Obama administration "is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon." The telecom giant, following a secret order from the National Security Agency, is handing over info for a three-month period, starting in April, ending in July.
Except, not. No one's listening to phone calls, just gathering info such as call durations, numbers calling numbers, what is known as "metadata." Clearly an effective program — nabbed those Boston bombers cold before they killed three and injured 264, right?
Then the paper, along with The Washington Post, followed with another shocker: Mr. Obama is personally reading everyone's email at every hour of every day (even those tuna casserole recipes and chain messages of funny cats forwarded 24 million times). See, there's this "top-secret Prism program" that has "direct access to servers of firms including Google, Apple and Facebook."
Except, not. The Tier 1 companies denied the reports immediately, uniformly and emphatically. They were merely following the edicts of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, first enacted in 1978, amended after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and since expanded several times.
"The U.S. government does not have direct access or a 'back door' to the information stored in our data centers," Google said in a statement. "We provide user data to governments only in accordance with the law." As they have for years and years.
So wait: Members of the Obama administration rolled out yet another scandal that isn't a scandal? You bet they did (c'mon, The Guardian?). And this one has been a blast for them. First, top Team Obama officials have gotten to say their favorite word, over and over: "Bush." Second, Republicans awoke from the slumber long enough to decry — the very thing they supported under George W. Bush. Bonanza.
"Seizing phone records of millions of innocent people is excessive and un-American," said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., author of the excessive and un-American Patriot Act in 2001. "This is a big deal, a really big deal," the Wisconsin Republican said of the tiny story that will fade faster than Liberace's love of a new boy toy.
So, another scandal that goes nowhere. Let's recount: There's the IRS scandal — the agency's targeting tea party organizations. But half the country went, "Good. %&*@ the tea party." And it'll end with a few heads lopped off, mostly done already.
There's the AP phone scandal — Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. testified under oath that he didn't know a thing: Done.
There's the Fox News scandal: Half the country went, "Good. #$@% Fox News." A story with no legs.
The drip-drip-drip of scandal is deliberate: Give the press something to chew on (and it's just fat, so lots of chewing). It's a long summer, in an off year — Year No. 5, scandal year. Remember, this is the administration that said, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste." So they decided, "Hey, let's do our own scandals!"
In fact, Team Obama has rolled out most of them all by itself. IRS? Planted a question with an audience member. AP phone scandal? The AP didn't even break it — the Justice Department sent the news agency a letter saying what it had done. Same with the Fox News scandal — Justice outed itself. The Verizon scandal?
And consider this Reuters report: "Attorney General Eric Holder appears to have little choice but to launch a new round of investigations into media leaks." Not a bad outcome from the Verizon scandal.
When this last scandal broke, where was Mr. Obama? On a two-day California fundraising trip. It's business as usual for the campaigner-in-chief — he's done 15 fundraisers already this year, as many as Mr. Bush did in all of 2005. As the media busies itself with scandals that ultimately will go nowhere, Mr. Obama is forging ahead with his effort to take over the House in 2014 and break the back of the Republican Party.
What's more, the scandals have had almost no effect on the president's popularity rating.
"How is it," a news article said last week, "that President Obama, despite the recent scandals, has been able to maintain an approval rating in the mid- to high-40s, or about where it's been for the better part of three years? A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll may provide some clues. For starters, the public doesn't seem to be blaming the president for the Benghazi terrorist attack, the IRS targeting of conservative groups or the Justice Department snooping."
I could be wrong — I was once in 1979. But watching these scandals come and just as quickly go makes me wonder. Maybe the once-tight-as-a-drum administration suddenly has sprung a leak — or five. Maybe its sheer incompetence has simply caught up with it. But something smells fishy, nothing adds up. And with each emerging scandal, the most damning one — Benghazi — recedes a bit more into the past.
Come September, we'll likely look back and say, "Huh. Lotta' smoke, no fire." But four Americans are dead: We still don't know why. And that's a real scandal.
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times and is now editor of the Drudge Report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @josephcurl.