House Republicans today continued to hammer Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. over the department’s oversight of the botched gun trafficking investigation in Arizona dubbed Operation Fast and Furious. Holder fought back, telling critics that the Justice Department is not involved in a cover-up.
Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the House Oversight Committee chairman who a leading critic of DOJ's handling of Fast and Furious, said today “this committee has lost its patience to wait longer” for answers from the Justice Department.
Republicans on the committee today demanded greater access to documents from the Justice Department, accusing DOJ of intentionally hiding information that could embarrass the department. Firearms linked to the botched sting were recovered at the Dec. 2010 shooting death scene of border patrol agent Brian Terry. Other members challenged Holder over why DOJ hasn’t fired any employee.
Oversight committee Democrats, including Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking minority member, called the flap over Fast and Furious an “election-year witch hunt.” The minority staff issued a report this week that absolved top DOJ leadership of any wrongdoing.
Holder’s testimony today—he responded to questions for more than four hours—marks the sixth time he has provided information to members of Congress at a hearing. Holder has repeatedly called Fast and Furious a “fundamentally flawed” law enforcement operation. “I have said that from Day 1,” Holder testified today.
The attorney general’s testimony (PDF) came just hours after Issa and Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, released a report that blamed top DOJ officials for allegedly covering up the botched operation.
Top officials have, for months, pinned responsibility for Fast and Furious on the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona and on the ATF, the report said. “In fact, Main Justice had much greater knowledge of, and involvement in, Fast and Furious than it has previously acknowledged,” according to the report.
Holder rejected the notion that he or other top officials approved techniques in which law enforcement agents allowed straw purchasers in the United States to transport guns into Mexico. DOJ, he said, is conducting an internal investigation of Fast and Furious.
He told committee members that the tactics used in Fast and Furious—agents allowed guns to cross into Mexico without interdiction—were unacceptable. The investigative tactic, Holder said, “appears to have been adopted in a misguided effort to stem the alarming number of illegal firearms that are trafficked each year from the United States to Mexico.”
For much of the hearing, Republicans confronted Holder on the Justice Department’s unwillingness to provide full access to internal documents about the DOJ’s oversight of the program.
The attorney general said the Justice Department has “worked diligently” to provide answers to questions arising from the congressional investigations.
The department, Holder said, has provided Congress “virtually unprecedented” access to internal documents that show how DOJ presented inaccurate information to Grassley in a letter in February 2011.
That letter, from Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich, said the department makes every effort to interdict weapons. DOJ officials later said the statement was inaccurate.
Holder told the committee today that DOJ “does not intend to produce additional deliberative material about the response to congressional oversight” that postdate the beginning of the investigation members of Congress initiated early last year.
“Prior administrations have recognized that robust internal communications would be chilled, and the Executive Branch’s ability to respond to oversight requests thereby impeded, if our internal communications concerning our responses to congressional oversight were disclosed to Congress,” Holder said. “For both Branches, this would be an undesirable outcome.”
Holder cited separation of powers concerns, arguing that the committee has sought information about open criminal investigations and prosecutions. He said “candid internal deliberations are necessary to preserve the independence, integrity and effectiveness of the department’s law enforcement activities and would be chilled by disclosure to Congress of such materials.”
The Justice Department will continue to respond to congressional inquiries for information, but DOJ will not offer any more internal communication among DOJ officials. “I want to make clear there is no attempt at any cover up,” Holder said.
Earlier this week, Issa threatened to find Holder in contempt of Congress if the department continues to withhold information that the committee has asked for in a subpoena.
The oversight committee issued a subpoena on Oct. 12 seeking documents that Issa said “are vital to help Congress fully understand the genesis, implementation and oversight of Operation Fast and Furious.”
Issa this week called the DOJ position “entirely unacceptable.” He said if the department “continues to obstruct the congressional inquiry by not providing documents and information, this Committee will have no alternative but to move forward with proceedings to hold you in contempt of Congress.”
At the hearing today, Issa questioned why DOJ has provided more information to the department’s internal watchdog, the Office of the Inspector General, than to Congress.
Issa and Holder today sparred over the secrecy of sealed wiretap applications that are a part of the Fast and Furious probe. Holder said any DOJ employee who releases the applications “does so at their peril.” Issa countered, saying Congress is not covered by the court order that is keeping the wiretap documents sealed.
Terry, the border patrol agent, was fatally shot in Arizona in Dec. 2010. Holder today addressed concern over the pace of the investigation of Terry’s killing. He said: “We go into court when we think we have cases that are ready to go” in order to bring the best possible case. Holder said an announcement about the investigation and prosecution could be made by in the coming weeks.
Republicans pounded Holder for not having terminated any DOJ official involved in the inception and supervision of Fast and Furious. DOJ has made personnel changes, including installing a new acting leader, B. Todd Jones, of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives.
“We will hold accountable the people who were involved in this flawed investigation,” Holder said today.
Holder deflected calls for his resignation from some Republicans on the oversight committee. He said he is “more than willing to admit mistakes when I have made them.” He urged members of Congress to put “aside the political gotcha games in an election year” in order to “get ahead here.”
Near the end of the hearing, Holder appeared testy—angrily pointing his finger—in dialogue with Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), who was one of the members of the House who wants the attorney general to quit.
Holder defended his record over the last three years, trumpeting the work of the criminal, civil and antitrust divisions after inheriting a “dispirited” DOJ that had been plagued by scandal.
The attorney general also lambasted another Republican on the committee, Raul Labrador of Idaho, who displayed slides depicting statements Holder made about the controversial pardon of Marc Rich. Holder said Labrador took the statements out of context, calling the slides "fundamentally unfair."
Photo by staff photographer Diego M. Radzinschi