June 28, 2013

ALONG WITH seemingly everyone else, we were outraged to hear that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) had systematically subjected the applications for tax-exempt status from groups with “tea party” in their names to enhanced scrutiny. Regardless of motive, it stank of unfair treatment based on narrow political criteria — and by one of the most powerful and feared organs of the federal government.

Republicans went beyond outrage: They went on the attack, irresponsibly and repeatedly implying that a broad political conspiracy to punish President Obama’s enemies was finally becoming visible, despite the fact that there was no evidence for that conclusion and that bureaucratic bungling was a more likely explanation.

This week saw new evidence suggesting not only that there was no political conspiracy to punish Mr. Obama’s enemies but also that the IRS’s targeting may not have been aimed only at the right. According to an IRS document that media organizations obtained this week, officials put the word “progressive” on a “be on the lookout” (BOLO) list for agency employees vetting applications for tax-exempt status. A variety of terms, in fact, ended up on BOLO warnings, including “occupy” and “Israel.”

The IRS also released the results of a preliminary internal review, finding that “current fact gathering has found no evidence of intentional wrongdoing” and finding “no evidence of involvement from anyone outside of the IRS.”

Republicans still insist that the balance of available evidence suggests that tea party groups were scrutinized with greater regularity and intensity than progressive ones. A letter from a Treasury Department inspector general to congressional Democrats, for example, stated that the term “progressive” appeared in a different “historical” section of the BOLO listings than terms having to do with the tea party and that groups with names relating to the tea party were all but guaranteed to suffer close IRS scrutiny in the period he examined.

It could still be that tea party groups got it worse from the IRS. But the available documentation suggests that IRS agents may simply have used the term “progressive” to sort through applications in the period before the one the inspector general studied.

Now there is even more to investigate, on top of lingering questions about the history of the tea party targeting. How, exactly, were progressive groups treated? If they were scrutinized more closely, when did it happen? And, given that the IRS must weed out applications for tax-exempt status from groups too involved in politics, is there any way in which the use of politically charged keywords to sort through piles of applications for tax-exempt status could ever be reasonable?

We don’t think so. Pending further investigation, the new information does not vindicate the IRS. Using clumsy keyword searches to detect the political activities of groups applying for tax- exempt status is crude and unfair. The IRS should exercise its formidable authorities with more care. Politicians, meanwhile, should resist jumping to conclusions before all the evidence is in.