WASHINGTON – House members accused Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday of stonewalling their probe of Operation Fast and Furious, and threatened him with contempt unless the Justice Department hands over thousands more documents.
“We have every right under the Constitution to check on what you’re doing,” said Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind. “I think you’re hiding behind something here that will not stand up…. For you to deny this Committee something like this (the documents) is just dead wrong.”
But Holder – making his sixth appearance before a congressional committee investigating the operation – said there are some documents his department will not release, citing the ongoing gun-running investigation and the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches.
“There are things that are either not relevant or are protected,” Holder said. He said his department has already provided “virtually unprecedented” access to more than 6,400 pages of the 80,000 documents requested, and cooperated in “numerous” witness interviews.
Holder repeated his assertion that the operation was flawed and his pledge that it will never happen again. He has maintained that he did not authorize the operation and did not know about it until February or March 2011.
Operation Fast and Furious was a gun-trafficking investigation run from 2009 to 2010 out of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ Phoenix office. Under it, ATF agents let “straw buyers” of weapons go in the hopes of tracing the guns to criminal cartels and to the ringleaders of the trafficking operation.
But many of the more than 2,000 weapons that “walked” in the operation are still unaccounted for, and most are believed to have walked into the hands of criminals on both sides of the border. Some were later found at crime scenes, including two AK-47s from the operation that were found at the fatal shooting of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry near Nogales.
House and Senate committees have been looking into the operation for the past year, demanding to know who in the Obama administration knew about the operation and when they knew it.
Thursday’s four-hour hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform led to new demands for documents and renewed Republican accusations that Holder was hiding something.
“If you do not find a legitimate basis to deny us the material asked for, we will seek the remedies necessary to compel you,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the committee chairman.
Democrats on the committee called the investigation a political sideshow that is distracting Congress from real changes, such as passing tougher gun-trafficking laws.
The hearing came two days after committee Democrats released their own report that said Operation Fast and Furious was the fourth gun-walking program in Arizona, dating back to 2006 and the Bush administration. That report laid the blame for the failed programs on federal law enforcement officials in Arizona, not higher-ups in the Justice Department.
“You … appear intent on escalating controversy and promoting unsubstantiated allegations in a campaign that looks more like an election-year witch-hunt than an even-handed investigation,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said to Issa.
“I hope we can put aside the politics and the rhetoric and focus on concrete reforms to ensure that this never happens again,” Cummings said.
But Republican committee members said it is not enough to point the finger at ATF’s Phoenix office.
“You can’t just slap somebody’s hand on this and say don’t do this again,” said Rep. Gosar, R-Flagstaff, a member of the committee.
“It’s the Department of Justice who’s ultimately responsible. And Mr. Holder who is the supreme individual of that agency that needs to have the highest accountability for this process,” he said.
Holder agreed there should be accountability but said it should come from those who are actually responsible, adding that he would work for justice in Terry’s death and to find those responsible for continuing the gun-walking program.
He said it takes time to build a case, and those who think he has not been taking steps to determine responsibility might not understand how the Justice Department works.
“I should be held accountable for things that are factually correct as opposed to something that is politically desired,” Holder told the committee.
Gosar was not impressed with that answer.
“We’ve got to have these answers; we’ve got to hold people accountable,” he said.
“Are all of us collateral damage in Arizona? Am I?” Gosar asked. “That’s not to be trifled with because we’re going to endure this (violence) over and over again.”