An investigation into the Justice Department’s “Fast and Furious” gunrunning probe, which allowed hundreds of weapons to be illegally “walked” into Mexico, is not the first time Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s truthfulness has been challenged by members of Congress.
In 2001, the House Government Reform Committee questioned the accuracy of Mr. Holder’s depiction of what he did as deputy attorney general in the last-minute pardon by President Clinton of fugitive financier Marc Rich, whose former wife, Denise Rich, had donated $1.3 million to Democrats.
Two years earlier, Mr. Holder came under fire for refusing to tell a Senate committee whether the Justice Department had recommended against Mr. Clinton’s offer of clemency to 16 Puerto Rican nationalists a month after then-Attorney General Janet Reno said their release posed a national security threat.
More recently, Mr. Holder was questioned on his refusal to allow Justice Department officials to testify in separate inquiries by Congress and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in their handling of the New Black Panther Party civil complaint, in which charges of voter intimidation were ordered dropped after the case had been won in court.
In the latest flap, Mr. Holder has been accused of a “lack of trustworthiness” in telling what he knew about the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ Fast and Furious probe. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, said statements made under oath by Mr. Holder about the operation have “proven to be untrue,” adding that his failure to “come clean” with the America public “called into question” his credibility to serve as attorney general.
Mr. Issa and Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the SenateJudiciary Committee, who also has been investigating the ATF operation, said more than 2,000 weapons were purchased by straw buyers at Phoenix-area gun shops, then turned over to handlers in the U.S., who transported them to drug smugglers in Mexico. The ATF has acknowledged that it lost control of the weapons after they had been purchased, giving gunrunners nearly a free pass across the border.
Two AK-47 assault rifles found in December at the site of the killing of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry were traced back to Fast and Furious.
Mr. Holder told the committee he first learned about Fast and Furious in late April or early May, but recently released memos show he received briefing papers and reports on the operation on at least five occasions beginning as early as July 2010. He has denied knowing any specifics of the Fast and Furious probe before April, but he said he took “decisive action” when he finally learned of it, ordering the Office of Inspector General to investigate the matter.
Congressional investigators are expected to issue new subpoenas this week for testimony from Mr. Holder; his chief of staff, Gary Grindler; and Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, who heads the Criminal Division.
Mr. Holder addressed the Fast and Furious debate during a news conference on Tuesday on a suspected Iranian terrorist plot. He said, “What I want the American people to understand is that in complying with those subpoenas and dealing with that inquiry, that will not detract us from the important business that we have here to do at the Justice Department, including matters like the one that we have announced today.”
In a letter to congressional leaders this week, Mr. Holder said he had “no recollection of knowing about ‘Fast and Furious’ or of hearing its name prior to the public controversy about it. Prior to early 2011, I certainly never knew about the tactics employed in the operation.”
Asked about questions concerning Mr. Holder’s credibility, Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said Mr. Holder’s letter “lays out why the facts refute such criticism.” She also said Mr. Holder has been “accurate and truthful and has been consistent throughout.”
Actions were ‘consistent’
Even though the controversy surrounding the Rich pardon happened nearly decade earlier, the issue surfaced during Mr. Holder’s confirmation hearing before the Senate in 2009. “As I indicated in my opening statement, I made mistakes,” he said. “And my conduct, my actions in the Rich matter was a place where I made mistakes.”
In the Rich matter, Mr. Holder said at the time that his actions were “consistent” with his duties and responsibilities as deputy attorney general. In February 2001, he testified that he was not “intimately involved or overly interested” in the government’s $48 million fraud case against Mr. Rich, that the case “did not stand out as one that was particularly meritorious,” and that he “never devoted a great deal of time to this matter.”