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Inadequate response to inexcusable actions

President Obama has been tardy and timid in responding to the Internal Revenue Service’s admission last week that it targeted conservative nonprofits for audits. He waited three days to address the matter, and even then did so only during a short news conference Monday with British Prime Minister David Cameron. If the president thinks that’s the best path to avoiding political hardship, he should note another prominent headline that continues to dog his administration: Benghazi.

As with those attacks on the American consulate in Libya last year, the administration seems to be doing its best to make troubling news worse. The news this time: A unit in the IRS that oversees tax-exempt groups went too far in using internal filters to snag conservative groups’ applications for nonprofit status. The audits, in themselves, were not a bad thing; campaign reform groups have been urging the IRS to look more closely at political groups who improperly used 501(c)4 status to avoid taxes and hide donors.

But the tax-exempt unit, based in Cincinnati, went too far. The agency not only singled out groups with “Tea Party” and “patriots” in the name, but also groups that criticized the government, according to an audit by the Treasury Department’s inspector general. “Absolutely chilling,” said Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican who voiced what Americans, regardless of party, should feel.

There’s no indication that the Obama administration directed or condoned the IRS behavior, but there are questions about who might have known it was happening. Last March, then IRS-commissioner Douglas Shulman, a George W. Bush appointee, told Congress that his agency wasn’t targeting conservative nonprofits. But on Sunday, the IRS declined to comment about whether senior IRS officials had discussed the issue with exempt-groups division director, Lois Lerner, before Shulman testified. The IRS commissioner, along with the chief counsel, are the agency’s two political appointees.

Also troubling: Lerner provided incomplete information Friday on the filters IRS staffers used, saying only that the agency went after groups with “tea party” or “patriots” in their name. The New York Times also reported that Lerner was briefed on the issue in June 2011, a seeming contradiction to her assertion that she learned about it through news reports.

Those inconsistencies provide more than enough reason for the president to forcefully and candidly confront the developing scandal. Instead, the administration tried to minimize the problem over the weekend, with Obama spokesman Jay Carney voicing concern about a “small number of Internal Revenue Service employees.” On Monday, Obama finally called the IRS’s actions “outrageous” and said his administration will get to the bottom of it.

That’s only a start. The White House needs to be more specific about its investigation, and it needs to be clear about who knew of the IRS tactics and when. If the president is worried about handing Republicans a political hammer, well, we’re already there.

We hope Obama has learned the lesson of the other headline grabber from last week – Benghazi. After four U.S. diplomats were killed in Libya last year, the administration allowed U.S. ambassador Susan Rice to offer a false narrative on the cause of the attacks, then slow-footed its explanation of what happened. The result: A distrust of the administration that Republicans have continued to exploit, despite an independent investigation that should have put the matter to rest.

Now Americans have another reason to wonder what their government is doing. They deserve a prompt, and more complete, explanation.

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