THERE ARE trials, and show trials. Investigations, and witch hunts. Sometimes, it's difficult to tell the difference, but usually it all boils down to politics.

The defendants at Nuremberg were people who epitomized the vile mentality of the Third Reich. Only the most die-hard Nazi could argue that politics, not justice, inspired that prosecution. But Stalin's assault on his enemies was the purest form of political homicide, a perversion of legal process akin to Ahmadinejad's current Iranian farce.

The Watergate hearings were the real thing (though Democrats could barely hide their glee at the destruction of a GOP administration). The McCarthy hearings were not.

Now, in 2009, we seem to be back to the issue of show trials and witch hunts. It looks like the pull of partisanship is powerful enough to sacrifice justice for political payback, with Eric Holder as cashier-in-chief.

Last week, the attorney general decided to reopen the investigation into alleged "torture" perpetrated by the CIA during the Bush administration. Even though his boss has publicly opposed reopening the matter and Holder himself led CIA Director Leon Panetta to believe the case was closed, Bill Clinton's favorite lawyer (after Hillary) has appointed a special prosecutor to pursue the matter.

Reasonable minds can disagree about where the line belongs on dealing with terrorists and rogue combatants. I don't agree that we have to take a kindler, gentler approach with those whose actions and organization clearly put them outside the Geneva Conventions.

(On a recent radio show I hosted, one caller praised a military interrogator who served dietetic cookies to a diabetic detainee, who then spilled the beans on some impending mayhem. Different strokes for different folks.)

But this isn't just about torture. The Department of Justice is fast becoming as politicized as critics claimed the Bush DOJ was, and it's been around only for a few short months. The conduct of Holder and the political appointees around him is starting to make the controversy about pink-slipped U.S. attorneys under Bush look silly. (It is silly, but some news outlets and aggrieved ex-prosecutors are still exploiting it for political gain.)

And Holder is getting kid-glove coverage.

Despite his questionable past at the Clinton DOJ, which included recommending a pardon for fugitive Marc Rich and a passel of Puerto Rican terrorists in direct violation of department procedure, his current portrait is one of a man of principle, integrity and independence. (I'm sure Marc Rich would agree.)

The AG has been praised for his efforts to redesign the civil- rights division of Justice. Under Holder, we'll be seeing a lot more of the "disparate impact" cases that will make it a lot easier to end up with more cases like that of the New Haven, Conn., firefighters - fair employment processes threatened when the numbers come out "wrong."

And if you're a Black Panther, you have a friend at Justice.

The story of voter intimidation during the last election has been played down in the city in which it happened.

You remember: On Election Day, three Black Panthers showed up at a polling place on Fairmount Avenue. One brandished a nightstick, and the others shouted racial threats at voters. The DOJ filed a complaint when Bush was still in office. A default judgment was obtained after the defendants ignored the complaint. And then, inexplicably, the DOJ under Eric Holder withdrew the complaint, nullifying the judgment.

This local "nonstory" is just a hint of the political pandering yet to come from a new and improved Justice Department.

Next case in point: Abruptly dropping the corruption investigation of Bill Richardson, Obama's first choice to head the Commerce Department.

The terse comment from one observer: "It was killed in Washington." Hmmm.

If Alberto Gonzales had tried any of this, there would have been a media meltdown. But Holder gets a pass because he seems to be going only after ex-Bushies.

The interrogation probe isn't about torture, folks. Sleep deprivation? Smoke in a detainee's face? Being shoved against a wall? Please.

This is about politics. Un-pure and simple.

Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer. See her on Channel 6's "Inside Story" Sunday at 11:30 a.m. E-mail