Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. today denied misleading Congress about when he first learned of the controversial gun trafficking investigation called Operation Fast and Furious.
Holder, taking questions today from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, testified in May that he had first heard of the botched gun sting just weeks earlier. The attorney general clarified today at another oversight hearing that he meant “a couple of months” earlier.
Holder's testimony today in the Senate isn’t likely to quiet critics as Senate and House Republicans continue to press the department for details about its oversight of the sale of weapons, to straw buyers in the United States, that ended up in the hands of criminals in Mexico.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a leading critic of Fast and Furious, today confronted Holder with a letter the Justice Department sent to him in February. DOJ officials said in the letter that the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives “makes every effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico.”
“In the nine months since then, mounting evidence has put the lie to those claims,” Grassley said in a prepared statement. “We have learned that instead of making every effort to interdict, ATF actually allowed the transfer of firearms in several operations, in hopes of making bigger cases.”
Last month, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, who heads the Criminal Division, said he could not recall whether he’d read the letter before it was sent to Grassley.
Holder today defended Breuer and the letter itself, saying that while the note contained “inaccurate” information, the Justice Department was acting in good faith. Holder said there was no intent to deceive Congress.
“It contains inaccurate information,” Holder said. The word “false,” he said, “implies people making a decision to deceive. That was not what was going on there. We now know that information is not correct.”
Holder noted several times at the oversight hearing that the department’s Office of the Inspector General is investigating Fast and Furious.
Several members of the Judiciary Committee wanted to know whether Holder will hold any person accountable. The attorney general said that the ATF is now under new leadership and there have been changes at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona.
“I will assure you and the American people that people will be held accountable for any mistakes that were made in connection with Fast and Furious,” Holder said today. He said he does not expect Breuer to submit a resignation letter.
In his opening remarks to the committee, Holder called Fast and Furious “flawed in concept, as well as in execution.”
Holder said the effects of the sting will be felt for years. Firearms that were lost in the operation, he said, will continue to show up at crime scenes. At least two guns at the murder of border patrol agent Brian Terry were linked to Fast and Furious.
Grassley rejected Holder’s call for stricter gun laws, saying at the hearing that amended gun laws are meaningless if law enforcement authorities do not enforce the laws currently on the books.
Holder addressed a variety of questions, including the Justice Department antitrust suit in Washington to block the proposed $39 billion merger between AT&T and T-Mobile USA. Holder said he is recused from participating in the case, leaving Deputy Attorney General James Cole in charge.
Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wisc.) called the proposed deal between the mobile phone companies a “dangerous merger” that would potentially lead to higher bills for consumers. Kohl pressed Holder about whether the Justice Department would settle the case to allow the deal to proceed with restrictions.
DOJ, Holder said, doesn’t file suit unless the department is prepared to follow a case “all the way through.” The attorney general said the Antitrust Division trial team is “ready and eager” to go to court.
Holder also addressed the department’s internal ethics investigation of the Ted Stevens trial team. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said DOJ should implement “serious corrections” to ensure federal prosecutors play by the rules.
Holder asked that the Stevens conviction be thrown out after a review of the case showed the Stevens trial team failed to provide favorable material to the former Alaska senator’s criminal defense lawyers at Williams & Connolly.
Hatch said he’s concerned DOJ isn’t doing enough to combat “prosecutors running wild” and ignoring the rules of criminal procedure.
Holder said the Stevens case “clearly bothered me.” He said the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, which monitors prosecutors’ compliance with ethical obligations, is preparing to release a lengthy investigation into the botched prosecution of Stevens.
Holder said it’s his hope that the Justice Department will publicly share as much of the report as possible.