“We need to be investigated by someone who wants to kill us just to watch us die. We need someone perceived by the American people to be irresponsible, untrustworthy, partisan, ambitious, and thirsty for the limelight. Am I crazy, or is this not a job for the U. S. House of Representatives?”
- CJ Craig
In four years at the helm of the House of Representative’s primary investigative body, Darrell Issa launched major investigations into the 2012 attack in Benghazi, the IRS’s alleged targeting of conservative organizations, the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms' failed “Fast and Furious” operation, the bankruptcy of solar panel manufacturer Solyndra, and the launch of Healthcare.gov. In pursuit of these scandals he was granted a budget of $25,678,100.
This figure does not account for the $14 million spent by the IRS answering voluminous and often duplicative subpoenas, the “millions” spent by the Department of Defense responding to inquiries about the attack in Benghazi, the budget of the Oversight Committee’s minority staff, nor the massive expenditure of resources by the dozens of other federal agencies that have come under the scrutiny of the Oversight Committee. By its conclusion Darrell Issa’s chairmanship could cost the U.S. Treasury well into the nine figures. From that astounding allocation of resources, Issa has unveiled no major corruption or gotten to the bottom of no significant scandal.
By mistaking bureaucratic incompetence for scandal, ineptitude for criminality, and general stupidity on the part of low- and mid-level government employees for political conspiracy, Issa all but guarantees that only the most fervent partisans will trust any information that emerges from his committee. In that way he is perhaps the best Oversight chairman a Democratic administration could hope for -- one whose investigations can simply be disregarded as partisan witch hunts and whose influence waned with each misstep.
In an October 2011 profile, Issa described himself to Susan Davis of National Journal as "a salesman,” claiming, “what I’m selling is the awareness of a product.” Yet his principal product has been well-packaged, media-friendly and almost always phony scandals.
In January, with Darrell Issa term-limited out of his chairmanship, Jason Chaffetz, a Utah representative elected in 2008, will take the helm of the Oversight Committee.
At his final full committee hearing on Dec. 9, Issa harangued MIT professor Jonathan Gruber, whose comments regarding the administration’s truthfulness in the creation of Obamacare spawned the latest conservative mini-scandal. “Are you stupid?” Issa asked the witness, citing the film Forrest Gump in his question.
This moment perfectly summed up Issa. A made-for-TV sound bite surely to elicit a chorus of guffaws from conservatives while the hearing itself was short on substance or outcomes.
All indications are Chaffetz will continue to follow the dangerous precedents set by Issa, continue to fail in carrying out one of the House of Representatives' most important constitutional prerogatives.
* * *
During the 2010 campaign Darrell Issa's reputation was cemented on both the left and right. To Republicans, he was exactly the aggressive partisan cop they wanted on the beat. During their time in the minority, Republicans thought Congress was neglecting numerous investigations, including the “crony capitalism” exposed by the bankruptcy of solar panel manufacturer Solyndra, the Justice Department’s purported inaction against the New Black Panthers for attempting to intimidate white voters, and Barack Obama’s ties to the community-organizing group ACORN.
To Democrats, Issa symbolized everything that was wrong with the way conservatives wielded power when in the majority. His chairmanship would mark a return to days of an investigative process marred by partisanship, acrimony and lack of any significant accomplishments. A week before the election, he confirmed this perception on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, calling Obama "one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times."
In the immediate aftermath of the Republican Party’s 2010 victory Darrell Issa attempted to prove he was not the radical and bombastic figure Democrats portrayed by unveiling a list of investigations that eschewed right-wing paranoia for reasonable oversight targets, which included, according to the Washington Post, “release of classified diplomatic cables by Wikileaks; recalls at the Food and Drug Administration; the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the foreclosure crisis; the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission's failure to identify the origins of the meltdown; as well as business regulations and alleged corruption in Afghanistan.”
But Issa could not resist the pull of fringe right-wing conspiracy theories that would satiate a conservative media and Republican base crying for blood. Instead of seriously pursuing the investigations laid out in the Washington Post, he would dig for evidence that the Obama administration was the embodiment of conservative fantasies.
Attempting to moderate his rhetoric, Issa set the following metric during an interview with Wolf Blitzer: “Our committee is supposed to be about ... creating reform, making government do its job, and do it within a smaller budget, not a larger budget.”
If that is the bar by which to judge Darrell Issa on, he has clearly failed.
* * *
Issa’s dogged desire to investigate the executive branch is a recent development for the chairman. During the Bush administration, the California congressman used his perch to obstruct investigations, defend unethical acts, and attack those who dared to accuse a Republican White House of wrongdoing.
A major scandal erupted in late 2006 over accusations that the White House improperly fired several U.S. attorneys -- some of whom were allegedly dismissed for failing to prosecute politically motivated voter-fraud cases against Democrats. Congressional requests for information from the White House were complicated by the Bush administration’s practice of using parallel sets of email servers – one inside the federal government and a second housed at the Republican National Committee. White House adviser Karl Rove, who was at the center of the U.S. attorney scandal, professing convenience, used his nongovernment email address for 95 percent of his communications.
When investigators found Rove’s deputy at the White House, J. Scott Jennings, had used his account provided by the Republican National Committee to discuss the firing of Bud Cummins, a U.S. attorney in Arkansas, they sought more records. However, as many as 22 million emails disappeared from the RNC’s servers.
Issa chalked up the loss of the emails to the GOP’s use of outdated software such as Lotus Notes, implying the entire investigation was a waste of money. “Are we simply going on a fishing expedition at $40,000 to $50,000 a month?” he asked.
Going a step further, he compared the behavior of Democrats on the committee to that of sexual deviants: “Well, if the chairman thinks that he should have Karl Rove's every thinking, including correspondence with a wife or a girlfriend or an old buddy, because it was done at the RNC and not official work -- sort of this voyeur, peeping tom that you're entitled to everything.”
Fast-forward to 2014. During his investigation of the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups, Republicans led by Darrell Issa focused their inquiry on the head of the agency’s exempt division, Lois Lerner. As part of its investigation the committee demanded her email correspondents over a number of years, which were provided by the Treasury Department, save for a batch of 30,000 emails from 2009–2011 after her hard drive purportedly crashed.
Lerner asserted her Fifth Amendments rights not to testify before the committee, which resulted in the House of Representatives declaring her in contempt of Congress. When it came to the missing emails, whereas during the Bush years, computer errors were an acceptable reason for error, in the Obama administration lost emails were evidence of criminality. In a sharply worded letter to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, “Congress passed the Federal Records Act (FRA) to preserve key documents — such as those that were stored on Lerner’s hard drive — for production to congressional investigators and other stakeholders, including historians and FOIA requesters.” Issa continued, “The FRA requires agencies to make and preserve records of agency decisions, policies, and essential transactions, and to take steps to safeguard against the loss of agency records.” This was a marked difference from his stance on lost emails during the Bush years.
* * *
At least some of Issa’s success can be attributed to this successful hacking of media culture, mastering a methodology for maximizing control over the narrative surrounding his committee’s investigations, transforming members of the press into co-conspirators.
The playbook is simple. First pick a favored reporter or reporters, and grant them access to information unearthed by committee investigators in the form of out-of-context statements from closed-door interviews conducted by committee staff. This has led to a number of corrections, updates and errors that have been made by outlets including the New York Times, CBS and the Washington Post.
In May 2013, as his committee geared up for testimony from Benghazi whistle-blower Greg Hicks, Issa’s staff leaked out-of-context excerpts of his interviews with the committee implying Cheryl Mills, Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff, had “yelled” at Hicks after he spoke with Jason Chaffetz during an investigative trip to Libya. The accusation was clear: Senior members of Hillary Clinton’s staff -- maybe even the secretary of state herself -- were trying to intimidate dissenters in the State Department into silence after speaking with members of Congress. CBS News picked up the story and ran it under the headline “Could Benghazi impact Hillary Clinton in 2016?” Ranking member Elijah Cummings pointed out the shortcomings in the network’s story in a May 2013 letter to Issa, writing, “Mr. Hicks never made this allegation, either at the hearing or before it during his interview.”
Hicks repeated Cummings' version of events during congressional testimony, stating there was “no direct criticism but the tone of the conversation, and again, this is part of the Department of State culture, the fact she called me and the tone of her voice, and we’re training to gauge tone and nuance in language, indicated to me very strongly that she was unhappy.”
CBS News was forced to update its story with the following editor’s note: “An earlier version of this article said diplomat Gregory Hicks testified he was yelled at by Hillary Clinton staffer Cheryl Mills. Hicks actually described the tone of Mills' voice had indicated to him ‘very strongly that she was unhappy.’ The article has been updated to more accurately reflect Hicks' recollection of Mills' tone.”
While CBS News might have been embarrassed by the episode, Issa accomplished his goal -- creating a media narrative that threw suspicion on Hillary Clinton and her staff, when none should have existed. And despite being clearly misled by Issa, CBS News did not hesitate to continue using the Oversight Committee as a principal source.
This was the case as the Oversight Committee geared up for a November 2013 hearing focused on the failures of Healthcare.gov. CBS News’ Sharyl Attkisson reported on the network that “serious failures in the website's security ... could lead to identity theft among buying insurance.” The New York Times reported similar information based on the same sourcing.
Neither the Times nor CBS made clear that the security flaws cited in the memo had nothing to do with the website launched on Oct. 1. Instead, they were in sections of code not scheduled to go live until the spring of 2014. This was easily discernible from reading the full context of the interview cited, which Issa failed to provide to reporters.
A few weeks later, in December, Issa was able to run a similar playbook yet again. Along with CBS News, ABC’s Investigative Unit also fell for Issa’s ruse. LA Times columnist Michael Hiltzik wrote of this incident, “The sun has risen in the East, so there must be a news report somewhere quoting a partial transcript leaked by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) purporting to show the shortcomings of Obamacare.”
Citing the closed-door testimony of Teresa Fryer, a senior official at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Attkisson reported, “A top HealthCare.gov security officer told Congress there have been two, serious high-risk findings since the website’s launch.” This was based on a partial transcript of what Fryer had told investigators from Issa’s committee. The full accounting made it clear that security for Healthcare.gov, as Michael Hiltzik explained, “exceed industry standards, that there haven't been any security breaches of the website, and the parts of the system affected by the high-risk findings were promptly shut down and quarantined.”
Attkisson’s story did not reflect these vital parts of Fryer’s testimony because they had not been shared with her. Issa simply wanted to further the narrative that there were critical problems with Healthcare.gov, and the CBS reporter was a useful tool in his endeavor.
ABC News also reported on the partial transcript in a similar fashion under the headline “Exclusive: Security Risks Seen at HealthCare.gov Ahead of Sign-Up Deadline.”
The ABC story was eventually updated to note that CMS had found the error, fixed it and those steps were “verified by an independent security assessment.”
* * *
While leaking misleading information, Issa has vigorously fought against performing the “Government Reform” function suggested by his committee’s title.
When the investigation of "Fast and Furious" revealed a significant opportunity to improve law-enforcement tools by toughening gun trafficking laws, Issa would not even tolerate a friendly witness suggesting a course correct that did not involve placing blame on the White House.
At a June 2011 hearing, ATF agent Peter Forcelli, a whistle-blower who helped make the scandal public, responded to a question from New York congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, saying, “I agree with” improving gun trafficking laws. He recommended a mandatory one-year prison sentence for straw buyers as a deterrent, noting that some people view this crime as “no more consequential than doing 65 in a 55.” Issa cut off this line of questioning, warning Forcelli that his opinion would not be considered “valid testimony” under House rules.
Other Republicans were less apt than Issa to drop this issue. In February 2013, a bipartisan group of House members, including Cummings and Maloney and Republican Reps. Patrick Meehan and Scott Rigell, introduced new gun trafficking legislation. While 118 members of Congress have signed on to the legislation, Issa has refused. He would rather hold pointless hearings that cast aspersions on Obama than confront the problems at the root of "Fast and Furious."
While spending tens of millions of tax dollars on investigations, taking up thousands of column inches of articles and hundreds of hours of television, Darrell Issa’s chairmanship is without accomplishment. His primary targets – Benghazi, "Fast and Furious," the IRS, Solyndra -- have all led to dead ends. Nearly every one of Issa’s investigations continues to linger on in hearing after hearing or simply exist in a purgatory, the chairman never acknowledging that no evidence existed for charges he leveled in the media.
His investigation into Benghazi has been one embarrassing episode after another. His committee has accidentally exposed classified information; carelessly released documents that put the lives of Libyans who worked with the United States in danger; accused Hillary Clinton of signing a cable she never even saw; and has seen his conspiracy theories of stand-down orders and political manipulation of talking points shot down by other Republican-led investigations.
In examining Benghazi, Issa’s committee has unearthed no significant findings. Speaker Boehner, in the ultimate slap in the face to Issa, essentially removed him from the case, choosing South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy to lead the Benghazi Select Committee.
During the IRS investigation Issa ignored facts and remained dedicated to the predetermined conclusion that the agency was used by the Obama administration to target conservatives. This is after revelations that the exempt division of the IRS, in addition to giving close scrutiny to Tea Party organizations, also included groups connected to ACORN, those working on the issue of medical marijuana, groups with “blue” in their name and green energy organizations on their list. He blames his failure to uncover any evidence of wrongdoing by the White House on stonewalling by the IRS and in particular Lois Lerner. At the same time he will not acknowledge his investigation has yet to turn up a single document suggesting anything untoward about the IRS’s actions, other that an attempt by an understaffed department to deal with a huge influx of applications by taking inappropriate shortcuts. Yes, incompetence, but not a political scandal. For all Issa’s bluster he has not unearthed any information that the agency’s inspector general hadn’t already uncovered.
In the case of Solyndra, his investigation yielded no evidence that political cronyism was at the heart of the decision to include the company in the Department of Energy loan program. It was widely known holdovers from the Bush administration who made the choice. Furthermore, his investigation is further undermined by the profit derived from the loans. While $780 million in loans have defaulted, the program has resulted in the payment of $810 million in interest. Loans budgeted to cost the government $10 billion are actually earning a profit.
In the investigation of "Fast and Furious" that led to outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder being held in contempt of Congress, the investigation has yielded little. The ATF ran a poorly thought out and mismanaged operation in an attempt to catch the large Mexican dealers driving the illegal gun trade on the U.S.-Mexico border. The botched operation resulted in the tragic and avoidable death of a border patrol agent, but once again no part of the investigation, beyond conservative conspiracy theories, has produced any evidence of a political scandal. Accusations that the White House intended to run guns to Mexico in order to increase violence south of border as a way of pushing gun legislation in the United States are ridicules on their face.
During his first term in office the president refused to use a mass murder at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater or the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabby Giffords as the pretext for new gun laws, but would use violence in Mexico? There was no push for new legislation until after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School when public outrage drove the president to action. The Justice Department IG’s office issued its report on "Fast and Furious" nearly two years ago, and since Issa has not unearthed a single relevant piece of material.
Contrary to Issa’s repeated assertions of criminality, not a single act of wrongdoing by any White House official has been uncovered by his efforts. And contrary to his assertions of an uncooperative executive branch, he has been granted access to millions of pages of documents and dozens of hours of time from officials.
Now Republicans have the opportunity for a fresh start under Jason Chaffetz to use the Oversight Committee to improve the function of our government, as opposed to chasing conservative conspiracy theories. What they do not recognize is that it would probably benefit their cause the most to choose this path. The best thing Barack Obama can hope for is that the new chairman is the same as the old.