This week, Republicans on Capitol Hill opened yet another front in their continuous sniping against the Obama administration, the Justice Department and Attorney General Eric Holder. Having demanded a federal investigation of intelligence leaks, they now claim to be outraged because Holder has asked two United States attorneys to conduct that probe — and one of the two happens to be a Democrat.

Angry Republicans (and their media enablers at Fox News, et al.) insist that the White House must have leaked information about the president’s terrorist “kill list,” the success of drone strikes and the killing of Osama bin Laden to improve the president’s martial image and re-election prospects. Never mind that they fawned over the Bush White House, regardless of its leaks and even its unlawful disclosure of CIA officer Valerie Plame’s identity. That was then, of course — and now the alleged leaks of national security material from a Democratic administration enrage them.

Whether those stories emanated from the Obama White House or not, someone must have tipped off The New York Times, which first reported the “kill list,” among other things. So consistent with President Obama’s evident obsession about stanching leaks, Holder appointed Ronald Machen, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, and Rod Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland, to oversee an investigation and potential prosecution of the leakers.

Immediately, a loud claque stretching from Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to the Fox Nation website began whining about Holder’s appointments. First, they said that the job ought to be handled by a special counsel, not a pair of prosecutors subject to presidential appointment. And second, they complained that Machen had supported the president in 2008 and donated about $4,500 to his campaign.

(They never mention that Rosenstein was a Bush appointee, held over by Obama with bipartisan support in Maryland. But then appointment by a Republican president isn’t much protection against smears from the right — just ask Patrick Fitzgerald, who prosecuted the Plame case.)

At this point, it is impossible to take Republicans seriously when they accuse anybody else of partisanship, although the Washington press corps feels obliged to pretend. To anyone with a functioning memory, these charges against Holder are especially galling, coming from people who were never troubled by the appointment of Kenneth W. Starr to investigate the Whitewater affair back in the 1990s.

Unlike Machen, whose resume includes years of service as a federal prosecutor, Starr had no prosecutorial experience. He was merely an ambitious Republican judge whose sole necessary qualification — in the eyes of the right-wing Republican senators and judges who conspired to appoint him — was partisan and ideological animus against President Clinton.

Not only had Starr donated thousands of dollars to GOP candidates, he had almost run for a Virginia Senate seat himself as a Republican. He had represented the Republican National Committee and even volunteered to write an amicus brief to the Supreme Court on behalf of Paula Jones, the Arkansas woman who sued President Clinton for sexual harassment.

Yet somehow, nothing about Starr’s record suggested unacceptable partisanship to the Republicans who appointed him or the press that fawned over him. The $50-million-plus investigation of the Clintons, which actually encompassed at least six separate strands of inquiry, turned up nothing except the president’s trysts with Monica Lewinsky and his dissembling about that personal indiscretion. Ultimately, Starr’s embarrassing performance led to a consensus that the nation should no longer encourage undefined probes by unsupervised prosecutors. The law that enabled him was allowed to lapse.

Today, there is nothing startling in Holder naming a Democrat and a Republican to conduct a national security investigation — and in this case, their independence can be amply assured by congressional oversight and media coverage. And perhaps the Republican noise machine can pipe down, in full recollection of its silence when Ken Starr ran amok with his party’s blessing.

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of


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