Grassley to Holder: Prove claim about Bush-era gun probe

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The ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee challenged Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Thursday to “produce any evidence” proving his claim that a prior attorney general knew about a gunrunning investigation during the Bush administration or apologize “if no such evidence is available.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa issued the challenge in response to Mr. Holder’s Senate appearance this week during a hearing on the Fast and Furious gunrunning investigation when he testified that Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey was aware of and remained silent about a similar operation known as Wide Receiver, during which he said 300 weapons were “walked” into Mexico.

“I was extremely disappointed to hear Attorney General Holder try to deflect criticism of himself and his department by pointing the finger at his predecessor,” Mr. Grassley said. “If any such evidence exists to back Holder’s claim, it has yet to come to light after months of scrutiny, and the charge should not stand without any evidence to back it up.”

On Tuesday, in response to questions by Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Mr. Holder said, “An attorney general who I suppose you would hold in higher regard was briefed on these kinds of tactics in an operation called Wide Receiver and did nothing to stop them - nothing. Three hundred guns, at least, walked in that instance.”

Mr. Holder was referring to Mr. Mukasey, who served as the nation’s top prosecutor in the Bush administration from November 2007 to January 2009.

“That’s a serious charge,” Mr. Grassley said. “The problem is we have absolutely zero evidence that it’s true. Nothing in the documents produced by the Justice Department and no information provided by any whistleblowers that I know of suggests that Attorney General Mukasey was ever briefed about Wide Receiver. Period.

“If Attorney General Holder made that kind of a charge about Attorney General Mukasey to this committee without any evidence to back it up, that would be an outrage,” he said.

In a letter Thursday to Mr. Holder, Mr. Grassley asked the attorney general to provide any evidence he has to support his accusations and to do so before the hearing record is closed next week.

“If he can’t produce evidence that Attorney General Mukasey was briefed on Wide Receiver, then he owes Mr. Mukasey an apology,” he said.

Mr. Mukasey, now a partner at the international law firm Debevoise & Plimpton in New York, was not available Thursday for comment, according to a spokeswoman.

Mr. Holder testified after Mr. Cornyn called for his resignation, saying his refusal to turn over documents sought by Congress in its Fast and Furious probe put into question his “political independence and accountability.”

Mr. Cornyn said Mr. Holder had “violated the public trust.” He added, “It is more with sorrow than regret and anger that I would say that you leave me no alternative than to join those who call upon you to resign your office.”

Mr. Holder defiantly responded, saying, “I don’t have any intention of resigning.” He also described as “factually wrong” several concerns outlined by Mr. Cornyn in calling for the resignation. He accused Mr. Cornyn of seeking the resignation for “political point-making.”

Fast and Furious was an attempt by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to allow straw buyers in Arizona to walk weapons into Mexico with a goal of tracking them to drug cartel leaders. But ATF lost track of hundreds of the weapons, nearly 600 of which have not been recovered.

Republicans in the House are preparing for a possible contempt of Congress decision next week against Mr. Holder, although both sides have sought a compromise to avoid the showdown.

Mr. Holder has said he would meet with House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, by Monday in an attempt to settle the dispute, and acknowledged that the Justice Department is preparing to give the panel documents showing how and when senior officials became aware of the Fast and Furious flaws.

In a letter to Mr. Issa on Thursday, Mr. Holder said the documents would fully address the committee’s concerns. He also offered a briefing on “how the department’s understanding of the facts of Fast and Furious evolved.”

On Thursday, Mr. Grassley said he would be willing to negotiate with the Justice Department concerning the impasse, but only if the department’s offer “isn’t hollow.”

“Contempt is the only tool Congress has to enforce a subpoena,” he said, adding that the Justice Department could avoid the action by complying with its legal obligation to turn over documents that have been sought under subpoena.

Mr. Grassley said the highest-ranking Justice Department official he is aware of who knew about gunwalking in Wide Receiver is Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, who heads the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. He said Mr. Breuer did nothing to stop the ATF from walking guns in Fast and Furious after learning about it in April 2010.

“If Attorney General Holder wants to criticize senior department officials who knew about gunwalking and did nothing, he should start with the current head of his own Criminal Division, Lanny Breuer,” he said.

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