It was reassuring to hear President Barack Obama forcefully condemn the alarming scheme, revealed last week, by Internal Revenue Service workers to go after right-wing groups. "If, in fact, IRS personnel engaged in the kind of practices that have been reported on and were intentionally targeting conservative groups, then that's outrageous, and there's no place for it," Obama said. "And they have to be held fully accountable."
Now we hope he will back up those words with action because accountability is essential in this matter. And that can happen only after a thorough and fair investigation of the facts.
The president should not wait for Congress to conduct some of its infamous committee hearings. We don't need a circus. This matter is too important for persistent partisan squabbling. Attorney General Eric Holder was right to order a criminal probe, but he should also appoint an independent counsel to investigate.
No one, left or right, is defending the actions of the IRS. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, among other Democrats, have expressed deep dismay and pledged to investigate.
But we are already floating the words "Nixonian" and "impeachment." Before we go there maybe we ought to first see if there is any evidence of White House involvement before we start making such comparisons or about throwing Obama out of office.
At this point, there's no evidence that even the head of the IRS knew what was happening. Douglas H. Shulman -- a Bush appointee, by the way -- was in charge while these abuses apparently were going on. He resigned last fall after testifying under oath to Congress in March 2012 that the IRS was not targeting conservative groups. (And if it turns out he was lying about what he knew, he should be prosecuted for perjury.)
What we do know is damning: In reviewing applications for tax-exempt status, IRS workers apparently singled out groups with words such as "tea party" in their name for extra scrutiny. Those groups faced onerous demands for information that placed an unfair, unacceptable and possibly unlawful burden on the individuals involved.
What remains to be seen is whether this practice was, as the IRS contends, simply a shortcut to deal with the flood of applications in the wake of the Citizens United decision, or whether it was something more sinister: an attempt to harass or intimidate people solely because of their political beliefs.
We also need to know whether this scheme did in fact bubble up from the rank and file -- as indicated in an inspector general's report saying that agency official Lois G. Lerner shut it down as soon as she learned of it -- or if there is evidence someone else at a high level ordered it.
Americans deserve answers to these questions.
For the good of the country, those answers need to come from a body, or a person, with an unimpeachable record for fairness. Congress doesn't fit the bill.