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New year, old headaches? Checking in with the IRS, NSA and Benghazi controversies

The botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act may be the top political topic -- or punch line -- for families around the dinner table this holiday season, but it was far from President Barack Obama's only headache in 2013. 

A trio of red-hot controversies also dogged the White House this year: continued questions about the 2012 Benghazi attack, the alleged overreach of the IRS, and a burgeoning scandal involving NSA snooping. 

These controversies may seem as distant for some Americans as last Christmas's family argument about whether Mitt Romney ever had a chance at becoming president ... but each one put Obama's second-term ambitions at serious political risk.

So, whatever happened to the IRS scandal? When your Aunt Jean warns that Benghazi will go down in history as a big-time conspiracy, does she have a point? Has Obama stemmed the damage of the NSA surveillance story? And are these stories in the rear-view mirror, or will the White House face continued questions in the new year? 

Benghazi
No story animated political conservatives like the attack against the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, which left four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, dead. 

"Watergate was terrible, certainly," asserts J.D. Gordon, a former Pentagon spokesman during the Bush administration who argued Benghazi is a scandal worse than the one that forced Richard Nixon's resignation. "But nobody died in it." 

President Obama dismisses the ongoing controversy over the talking points that the administration initially put out to describe the attack in Benghazi. Watch his entire comments on Benghazi.

After the White House acknowledged the incident was a coordinated terrorist attack rather than the spontaneous outgrowth of an Islamist protest of a cartoon, conservatives pivoted toward insinuating the administration was guilty of a politically-motivated cover up.

Arguments about what happened in Benghazi simmered all year, but the outrage culminated during a hearing in May which featured several “whistleblowers” who argued they considered the Benghazi attack a terrorist event from its outset and were bewildered as to how the administration could have asserted otherwise.

To stanch the Republican attacks, the administration released almost 100 pages of emails detailing the development of talking points regarding Benghazi; the emails showed more bureaucratic wrangling than nefarious intent as different officials passed revisions back and forth.

“Allegations are made and they are very strong, headline-type allegations,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, the Maryland congressman who serves as the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.  “But then there’s a chasing to try to find the facts to look up the allegations.”

Congressional investigators haven’t managed to unearth any evidence of a deliberate effort to cloud the truth about Benghazi, but Republicans mostly suspect the Obama administration of having done exactly that.

Four months after the attack in Benghazi, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave her final testimony to the House and Senate, showing rare public emotion and taking responsibility for what happened. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

“I think it’s a major national security and major political issue for the U.S. It’ll be an election issue in 2016, as it should, because of the unanswered questions to this day,” said Gordon.

But Gordon also acknowledged that the topic of Benghazi has become sharply politicized – which explains why it hasn’t had long-lasting resonance as an issue outside conservative media.

“I think it comes down to how people view President Obama and Secretary Clinton,” he said. “If people like them, they’re going to dismiss the criticisms as politically-motivated. If they don’t like President Obama and Secretary Clinton, or are in the political middle, I think they see it for what it is.”

The investigation persists, though: Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has threatened to hold up all presidential appointments unless the administration releases more documents involving Benghazi.

IRS targeting
Americans have never been great fans of the Internal Revenue Service, the dreaded government agency that scoops up tax money every April. But when reports surfaced that IRS employees had inappropriately singled out conservative and Tea Party groups applying for nonprofit status, garden-variety annoyance exploded into outrage. 

Republican lawmakers groused that Obama was using the tax agency – the same one charged in part with assessing penalties in the health care reform law – to target his political enemies.

The acting IRS commissioner was sacked as a result, and Lois Lerner – the director of the agency’s tax-exempt division – invoked her Fifth Amendment rights when questioned by Congress about the targeting. (Lerner subsequently retired from the IRS.)

But no evidence has been produced to date that the president or members of his administration ordered deliberate targeting of conservative groups. Subsequent evidence suggested that the IRS had also singled out some progressive groups, too.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner voices criticism toward President Barack Obama's remarks earlier this week in which the president referred to "phony" Washington scandals.

Cummings voiced frustration, though, toward Republicans on his committee for “cherry-picking” information to support a narrative they’ve attempted to create.

“If you throw mud against the wall, some of it’s going to stick,” he said. “And when you have a climate in the country where some people still don’t believe the president was born in the United States ... some of it’s going to stick, because people believe what they want to believe.”

“I think the targeting is a star witness in the case against the IRS,” said Craig Bergman, a conservative documentarian who acknowledged the case that the administration ordered targeting is still circumstantial. “If this were a jury trial, I believe I could get a conviction. In a criminal trial, you need to convince 100 percent of them; in a political trial, you only need to convince 50 percent plus-one.”

But there is little new information to sustain the investigation. While Benghazi could reappear in 2016 as an issue against then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should she run for president, the IRS controversy has largely withered.

NSA snooping
Of the three controversies to erupt in May, this one had the largest scope, but was the least partisan. Revelations that the NSA had collected Americans' phone records in-bulk spurred comparisons -- by talk show hosts and federal judges alike -- to George Orwell and the Jason Bourne spy series. 

A judge's ruling against NSA data collection practices and a presidential advisory board's recommendations of reforms to surveillance programs drove that point home in stark detail.

Government contractor Edward Snowden partnered with journalist Glenn Greenwald to reveal some of the most sensitive U.S. national security secrets.

The consequences have been profoundly embarrassing: world leaders have canceled planned visits to the United States, and Obama has had to call leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose cell phone was reportedly tapped by the NSA. Snowden’s asylum-escape to Russia further exacerbated tensions between the United States and its old Cold War adversary.

The White House, under fire from closest allies, is taking a closer look at the National Security Agency's vast data collection. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

The revelations had deep implications domestically, too. Americans learned that the government has been mining telecommunications and internet giants for “meta-data,” not always with explicit permission to do so. Concerns about domestic surveillance have prompted the administration to pledge to develop new safeguards on Americans’ privacy.

Still, the fallout from the NSA controversy has split along odd political fault lines. Hawkish lawmakers from both parties have defended the NSA’s practices as an essential counterterrorism tool, while more dovish Democrats and libertarian-minded Republicans have criticized the practices as an overreach.

“I get questions about this all the time: are they looking at my emails? Are they going to see my personal comments?” Cummings said of the lasting impact of the NSA controversy. “I just think that people are getting to a point of just being, feeling—people losing faith … I think people are getting to more and more distrust government.”

Obama seemed to suggest he was weighing some changes to surveillance practices after receiving his review board's report. He promised to make a "pretty definitive statement" about the issue come January.

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