Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. was warned Thursday by key Republicans on a House committee that he faces a contempt of Congress citation if the Justice Department fails to turn over documents subpoenaed by the committee in its investigation of the failed Fast and Furious gunrunning operation in Arizona.
Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, complained at a rancorous hearing that Justice had handed over only 6,400 of 80,000 documents sought in the panel's ongoing probe of Fast and Furious — the botched law enforcement effort in which federal agents allowed more than 2,000 weapons to be "walked" to drug smugglers in Mexico.
"If you do not find a legitimate basis to deny us material we've asked for, we will seek the remedies necessary to compel," said Mr. Issa, who said in a Jan. 31 letter to Mr. Holder that the committee could hold the attorney general in contempt "if the department continues to obstruct the congressional inquiry."
In his letter, Mr. Issa gave Mr. Holder until Feb. 9 to fully comply with the October subpoena — a deadline that Deputy Attorney General James Cole said in a letter Wednesday would be impossible to meet.
Mr. Holder, whose appearance before the committee was the sixth time he has been called to answer questions about the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives-led operation, insisted that the Justice Department has tried to comply with the committee's requests for information.
He said Justice had provided Congress with "virtually unprecedented access" to internal deliberative documents to show how "inaccurate information" was initially conveyed about Fast and Furious, adding that in doing so, Justice Department officials relied on information provided by field supervisors that later proved to be inaccurate.
Mr. Holder also said the department does not intend to produce additional deliberative materials about the response to congressional oversight or media requests that postdate the commencement of congressional review. That decision, he said, is consistent with the long-standing approach taken by the department, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, and "reflects concerns for the constitutionally protected separation of powers."
Rep. Dan Burton, Indiana Republican and former committee chairman, said he thought the committee was being "stonewalled" and urged Mr. Issa to seek the contempt citation if the records were not forthcoming.
"There is something hidden you don't want us to see," Mr. Burton told Mr. Holder.
Mr. Holder was the sole witness in the 4 1/2-hour hearing, which featured tough questions and partisan sniping between Republicans critical of the attorney general and Democrats, who defended him against what they called unsubstantiated allegations.
Fast and Furious was an attempt by ATF to stop the flow of illegal weapons into Mexico by allowing "straw buyers" to walk the weapons — including hundreds of AK-47 semi-automatic assault rifles — into Mexico with a goal of tracking them to drug cartel leaders. But the ATF lost track of hundreds of the weapons, 1,400 of which are still unaccounted for.
Mr. Issa and Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, began a probe into Fast and Furious in December 2010, following the shooting death of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry just north of the Arizona-Mexico border.
Two AK-47 assault rifles found at the site of the Terry killing had been purchased as part of the Fast and Furious operation.
Mr. Holder said he did not learn of the connection between Fast and Furious and Terry's death until weeks later, although he described as "wrong" the walking of weapons as a law enforcement tactic and that he had put an end to it shortly after he learned of it. He also said he never authorized the gun-walking tactics and did not think his top aides, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer and Chief of Staff Gary Grindler, did so either.
The attorney general said he was "disappointed" in aides who did not bring their concerns about the gun walking to his attention and also noted that arrests of those involved in the Terry killing is possible in the next six months.
Mr. Holder accused Rep. Raul Labrador, Idaho Republican, of being "disrespectful" and "fundamentally unfair" when the first-term lawmaker accused him of "gross incompetence" in preparing to testify before Congress.
Mr. Labrador said Mr. Holder "either lied" or was "negligent" when he testified earlier about when he had learned about Fast and Furious. One of the first members of Congress to call for Mr. Holder's resignation, he angered the attorney general when he started to bring up statements Mr. Holder had made in 2001 about his role in a controversial White House pardon.
Mr. Holder said Mr. Labrador's line of questioning "was one of the worst things I have ever seen."
Rep. Peter Welch, Vermont Democrat, used much of his five minutes of questioning to accuse Mr. Issa and the Republicans of making "unsubstantiated allegations."
"I have never accused you of having personal knowledge [of gun walking]," Mr. Issa said to Mr. Holder near the close of the hearing. He added, however, that he thought the attorney general should have known about it.
After the hearing, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat and ranking member of the committee, asked for a committee hearing with former Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey about so-called "gun-walking" operations in 2006 by the Phoenix field division of ATF and the U.S. attorney's office in Arizona.
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