CNN recently obtained an email sent by a top aide to President Barack Obama in which the aide discusses the Obama administration's reaction to the attack on the U.S. posts in Benghazi, Libya. According to CNN, the actual email differs from how sources inaccurately quoted and paraphrased it in previous accounts to various media organizations.

There is an unavoidable stench of politics that accompanies the Benghazi story and it serves mainly to obfuscate more important issues.

But the revelations about the Internal Revenue Service targeting conservative groups for harassment go to the heart of who we are as a republic.

So far, the president has said the right things, offering that he has "no patience" for such behavior, if the allegations turn out to be true. So much so that he asked for and received the resignation of the acting director of the IRS after two agents were identified as being "overly aggressive" in their handling of requests by conservative groups.

Though the IRS's preliminary explanation may indeed be the correct one, it hearkens back to the "few bad apples" alibi used to explain the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib and deserves further scrutiny.

But these latest allegations also resurrect a dark chapter in American history.

Between 1956-1971, orchestrated by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) operated a series of covert and at times illegal activities. Its goal was to survey, infiltrate and discredit domestic political organizations.

According to FBI records, 85 percent of COINTELPRO efforts targeted those on the political left that Hoover deemed "subversive." This illustrious list included communist and socialist organizations, the Black Panther Party, as well as those associated with the civil rights movement, in particular Martin Luther King.

In 1963, on the heels of King's keynote address at the March on Washington, William Sullivan, head of COINTELPRO wrote:

"In the light of King's powerful demagogic speech ... . We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security."

Soon after, with the approval of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, King was under constant surveillance, which included bugging his hotel rooms, until his death in 1968. It wasn't until the U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, also known as the "Church Committee," led by Idaho Sen. Frank Church in 1975, did these activities become public knowledge.

There is nothing to suggest the latest IRS allegations have reached the level of COINTELPRO activities, but there can simply be no tolerance for such practices.

That the IRS has targeted conservative organizations is almost irrelevant to the story. Charges that those working for the federal government can take it upon themselves to target groups they oppose personally should be abhorrent to every American regardless of political ideology.

Though it is unrealistic to expect the president can oversee every aspect of the government, he does have a responsibility to conduct a full investigation that explains what happened and why.

Even if nothing was inappropriate, it would still raise questions about use of such practices if only groups with a certain political orthodoxy are targeted.

We've been down this tragic road before. This may not rise to the level of Hoover, but it unearths memories of America at its worst.

Given the enormous issues that this country faces, the last thing needed is another distraction. But this one cannot be swept under the rug, engulfed by the weight of the latest news cycle.

It is unrealistic to expect that a government that we are unable to trust can effectively address the issues that are critical to the nation.

Contact Byron Williams at 510-208-6417 or byron@byronspeaks.com.