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Stirring extreme partisanship together with rightist paranoia, Rep. Darrell Issa and his Republican colleagues on the House Government Operations Committee have transformed a legitimate investigation into a breach of Constitutional authority and a danger to law enforcement. With Wednesday’s vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt – for refusing to turn over every document demanded in the committee’s probe of the Justice Department’s “Operation Fast and Furious” gunrunning sting – the reckless Issa invited attention to his own aims and tactics, which cannot withstand much scrutiny.

There was little expectation of scrupulous conduct from Issa, who upon assuming the committee chair announced plans to hold “seven hearings a week, times 40 weeks” to “measure [the] failure” of the Obama administration. While he hasn’t achieved that supersized goal, his blustering tone was telling. He has turned a sober and important committee into a parody of Fox Nation. And now with his most ambitious probe unable to find any evidence of wrongdoing by Holder, he is abusing Congressional power to distract from his own failure.

The Fast and Furious fiasco originated during the Bush administration, when agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms decided to track illegal gun sales by U.S. dealers to Mexican drug cartels by allowing weapons to be “walked” across the border. The agents hoped that with the cooperation of Mexican police, they would be able to make major conspiracy cases rather than merely arresting a few dealers or smugglers. But the operation blew up when two of the weapons permitted to be “walked” by a small-time dealer were identified at an Arizona shootout where a Border Patrol agent was killed.

Issa’s bad faith is so blatant that even Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), the House Majority Leader and Tea Party favorite, reportedly fretted that the committee is going too far. He has refused to summon witnesses or examine evidence regarding identical ATF operations during the Bush administration. He has ignored warnings that the committee’s attempt to subpoena internal Justice Department documents is not only prohibited by law (and the separation of powers), but might jeopardize ongoing cases.

As Michael Keegan, president of People for The American Way, observed in an interview with The Nation magazine: “Over the course of this ‘investigation,’ the Committee has ordered the [Attorney General] to produce documents whose confidentiality is protected by federal law, has refused to subpoena Bush Administration officials to testify about their knowledge of the operation during their time in office, has refused to allow public testimony from officials whose testimony counters Issa’s partisan narrative, and has repeatedly rejected the A.G.’s efforts to accommodate the committee, making compliance all but impossible.”

Meanwhile, Issa has persistently encouraged loony suspicions of a “plot” by the Obama administration to use Mexican gunrunning as a pretext to abrogate the Second Amendment. Naturally the right-wing propaganda machine, embodied by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, has been trumpeting this nonsense to fire up the Republican base. The arrogant talk host gave away the game when he told a caller recently that Issa may well deserve “credit” for “delaying this [investigation] until an election year when more people are paying attention, when it’ll have more impact.”

Now that portends an unprecedented Constitutional confrontation – unless cooler heads in the Republican caucus show more courage than usual. The legal doctrine against undue Congressional interference with federal investigations was most clearly enunciated by the Reagan administration. If such concerns matter very little to Issa, they ought to trouble his superiors in the House leadership. In a defensive measure, President Obama has asserted executive privilege for the first time — and elicited squeals from Republicans who never objected when President Bush used the privilege for more cynical purposes, including protection of Karl Rove and his Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

No matter what happens next, Issa’s behavior raises urgent questions about his motives and fitness to chair such a vital committee.

Perhaps it is time to review his shrouded past — which includes numerous unhappy encounters with law enforcement, from alleged car thefts to weapons offenses. While almost none of those accusations stuck, there was more evidence than he has managed to find so far against Holder. Arrested twice on gun charges in Michigan and Ohio, he was ultimately convicted of misdemeanor possession of an unregistered pistol. Is that embarrassing history what drives his bizarre behavior today?

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