Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. today on Capitol Hill said he wants to prevent the heated debate about the botched gun trafficking investigation "Operation Fast and Furious" from turning into a political sideshow.
Holder criticized what he described as "inflammatory and inappropriate rhetoric" swirling around Fast and Furious, the controversial program in which federal agents allowed straw buyers in the United States to purchase and then transport firearms into Mexico.
Holder has repeatedly called Fast and Furious “fundamentally flawed,” and today he continued that refrain in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee at an oversight hearing.
But the attorney general also said “it is unfortunate that some have used inflammatory and inappropriate rhetoric about one particular tragedy that occurred near the Southwest border in an effort to score political points.”
That tragedy was the murder of border patrol agent Brian Terry, killed in December 2010 in southern Arizona. Federal investigators linked two guns in the homicide to the Fast and Furious operation, which began a year earlier. Holder called the killing "senseless, tragic and awful."
“Unfortunately, in the pursuit of that laudable goal, unacceptable tactics were adopted as a part of Operation Fast and Furious, Holder said in his opening statement. “As I have repeatedly stated, allowing guns to ‘walk’—whether in this administration or the prior one—is wholly unacceptable. The use of this misguided tactic is inexcusable. And it must never happen again.”
Holder cut back against critics who claim the Justice Department has not fully cooperated with the congressional investigation into Fast and Furious. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) in his opening remark today said DOJ has "systematically lied" to the House Oversight Committee.
DOJ last week provided what Holder called unprecedented access to core deliberative material about how misinformation was included in a letter to Congress in February about the operation. Additionally, he said the department has turned over thousands of pages of documents.
“Getting to the bottom of this is something we all want to do,” Holder told Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) during one exchange.
Sensenbrenner pressed Holder about how he planned to “clean up this mess.” Holder told the congressman that “nobody in the Justice Department lied” to members of Congress about the Fast and Furious operation. Holder said nobody at DOJ had the requisite intent to deceive Congress about the DOJ handling of the gun trafficking program.
Yesterday afternoon, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a leading critic of the Justice Department’s handling of the Fast and Furious program, called for the resignation of a top DOJ official for his role in drafting the February letter to Congress.
Grassley said in a floor speech that Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer of the Criminal Division made misleading statements to Congress in recent testimony about the botched gun program.
“It is past time for accountability at the senior levels of the Justice Department,” Grassley said. “That accountability needs to start with the head of the Criminal Division, Lanny Breuer.”
Breuer, Grassley said, was involved in drafting the February letter in which the Justice Department denied that the ATF has ever allowed guns to “walk” from the United States into Mexico. The Justice Department has retracted the letter. Grassley also criticized Breuer for not telling top DOJ officials sooner about when he first learned about controversial gun trafficking investigative techniques.
A DOJ spokeswoman, Tracy Schmaler, said in a statement yesterday: “Assistant Attorney General Breuer has acknowledged his mistake in not making--and therefore not alerting Department leadership to--a connection between the allegations made about Operation Fast and Furious and the unacceptable tactics used years earlier in Operation Wide Receiver." Breuer told Congress that he was not involved in the drafting of the letter.
Holder spent much of his time today responding to questions about Fast and Furious.
Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), however, focused his questions on whether Justice Elena Kagan, formerly the DOJ’s solicitor general, should recuse from hearing the upcoming health care oral argument.
Smith said DOJ hasn’t fully complied with his demand for documents that could illuminate the extent to which Kagan participated in discussions about health care challenges when she was at the Justice Department. (Click here for more NLJ coverage on the issue.)
Holder today said Kagan did not participate in conferences at DOJ about health care reform. Smith seemed incredulous. He said recently released e-mails “reveal inconsistencies with the administration’s claims that then-Solicitor Kagan was walled off from the issue.”
Smith criticized what he called a “closed and secretive” Justice Department and urged department officials to allow him to interview current and former employees about what role, if any, Kagan played in discussing the Obama administration’s health care legislation.
Holder did not cite a specific legal authority for withholding documents from Congress. He said, however, that there could be a separation of powers issue.