Analysis: Issa Stirs Echoes of McCarthy in IRS Probe

In one brief and repugnant interview, the GOP's chief congressional investigator into Internal Revenue Service abuses cherry-picked evidence, overstated his case, and violated the sacred American principle of presumed innocence.

If that was not enough, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., called White House press secretary Jay Carney a "paid liar," and couldn't explain why. "We're getting to proving it," he said.

Meet the best friend of a controversy-plagued Democratic White House: a demagogic Republican.

In a reminder of how the GOP overreached during the Clinton-era sex scandal, President Obama's chief congressional investigator doesn't seem capable of letting damning facts speak for themselves.

Interviewed by a smartly skeptical Candy Crowley on CNN's State of the Union, Issa found himself on the defensive from the start.

"Congressional investigators tell CNN the [congressional] report finds the IRS spent over $50 million on 225 employee conferences over a two-year period," Crowley said, adding that the Obama administration no longer allows spending on such training.

"So what's the hearing about?" she said. "Why are you having it?"

Issa shifted focus to the IRS's admission that its agents targeted conservative groups for review of their tax-exempt status. "Well, first of all, we're looking at the IRS for how big the problem is," he replied. "As you know as late as last week the administration is still trying to say there's a few rogue agents in Cincinnati when in fact the indication is they were directly being ordered from Washington."

Note what Issa is doing. He does it all the time--start an unsubstantiated allegation with an absolute declaration ("when in fact") and follow it with weasel words ("the indication is"). This smear-and-caveat technique allows him to ruin reputations without being called a liar.

Issa is a demagogue with plausible deniability.

Crowley turned next to excerpts of interviews with IRS agents that were selectively made public. She calls the practice "problematic" because "it's hard for us to kind of judge what's going on."

Cherry-picking evidence is deceptive and unethical. Here's how it works:

CROWLEY The investigator said, "So, is it your perspective that ultimately the responsible parties for the decisions that were reported by the [inspector general]"--that is, the decision to target tea-party and patriot applications--"are not in the Cincinnati office?" The employee says, "I don't know how to answer that question. I mean, from an agent standpoint, we didn't do anything wrong. We followed directions based on other people telling us what to do." Investigator: "And you ultimately followed directions from Washington, is that correct?" The employee: "If direction had come down from Washington, yes." The investigator: "But with respect to the particular scrutiny that was given to tea-party applications, those directions emanated from Washington, is that right?" The employee answers, "I believe so." 

It's totally not definitive.

ISSA Well, that one isn't.

No "smoking gun." Not even a warm slingshot. And yet, Issa kept digging his hole.

ISSA But I will tell you, one of the agents asked for and got a transfer because that person was so uncomfortable that they wanted out of it.  

CROWLEY Right.

ISSA And they've said categorically they thought it was inappropriate, and that's why that person requested a transfer.

CROWLEY You give those transcripts as well.

ISSA Right. And these transcripts will be made public.

If history is a guide, the full transcripts will not support Issa's exaggerated claims and dark accusations. Crowley pressed Issa to release the interviews immediately to avoid the perception that "you in particular sort of cherry-pick information that go to your foregone conclusion."

Like a cornered snake, Issa lashed out.

ISSA The whole transcript will be put out. We understand--these are in real time. And the administration is still--their paid liar, their spokesperson, picture behind [he points to a picture of White House press secretary Jay Carney], he's still making up things about what happens in calling this local rogue. There's no indication--the reason the Lois Lerner tried to take the Fifth is not because there is a rogue in Cincinnati; it's because this is a problem that was coordinated in all likelihood right out of Washington headquarters and we're getting to proving it. We have 18 more transcribed interviews to do.

See what he's doing? "We understand" and "in all likelihood" are weasel phrases couching accusations and assumptions that Issa can't support. But don't worry; he might prove them after 18 more interviews!

Do you hear history's echo? Sen. Joe McCarthy paved his way to infamy with 205 names. " I have here in my hand a list of 205—a list of names that were made known to the secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party …," McCarthy said in 1950. (There is some dispute over the actual number of names McCarthy cited.)

Crowley pointed out the obvious--that Issa had "no direct link" between the wrongdoing of IRS agents and political leaders in Washington. Issa replied, "The president's spokesman is saying whatever is convenient at the time and the story changes."

That sentence is irony wrapped in raw partisanship and infused with hypocrisy. If Issa is going to call Carney a liar, he might want to step outside his glass house.

He might also want to realize that the president is swamped in self-inflicted controversies that raise questions of West Wing competence, if not corruption. We will soon know whether the IRS's targeting involved officials at the White House or Obama's reelection campaign. The flames don't need Issa's toxic fuel.

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