The House committee investigating Fast and Furious has received more than 7,600 documents from the Justice Department, but Republican lawmakers say none addresses who approved the gunrunning probe, who failed to stop it before a U.S. Border Patrol agent was killed and why department officials initially lied to Congress about it.
Now the panel has its sights set on an additional 1,300 pages of documents it believes will answer those questions and also expose a political cover-up at Justice.
Nevertheless, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's quest for records got more complicated this week when President Obama asserted executive privilege and refused to turn them over — and the committee in turn voted to recommend holding Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt of Congress.
Together, they are the crux of what has become the biggest separation-of-powers battle of the Obama administration.
House Speaker John A. Boehner said Thursday that the president's play proves the White House was involved in the cover-up.
"The decision to invoke executive privilege is an admission that White House officials were involved in decisions that misled the Congress and have covered up the truth," the Ohio Republican told reporters. "So what is the Obama administration hiding in Fast and Furious?"
White House press secretary Jay Carney called the House committee's investigation and its party-line vote on Wednesday for a contempt of Congress citation a "fishing expedition," adding that it was "unnecessary and unworthy of Congress."
Mr. Carney said Justice has "provided Congress every document" that pertains to the Fast and Furious operation itself.
"Hogwash," said Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee who first began the Fast and Furious probe. "Through my investigation, I know there are reams of documents related to the 'operation itself' that the Justice Department has refused to turn over to Congress."
According to the committee, it has "not only a right, but an obligation" to do all it can to examine the department's suspected mismanagement in its response to the unusual program that put thousands of guns in the hands of Mexico's violent drug cartels.
The committee said it is concerned about and wants to see documents outlining continued complaints by whistleblowers that they faced retaliation after testifying about the program; allegations by the former acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) that Justice Department officials sought to protect political appointees; and the nine-month delay before the department formally withdrew its false denial to Congress about allowing guns to flow over the border to Mexico.
In a Feb. 4, 2011, letter to Mr. Grassley, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich said the department did not allow guns to be "walked" to drug smugglers in Mexico during Fast and Furious.
Mr. Weich, who resigned last week, said whistleblower accusations that ATF allowed the sale of assault weapons to a straw purchaser who then transported them to Mexico were "false," adding that the agency "makes every effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation into Mexico."
The Justice Department retracted that letter in December, with Mr. Holder saying Mr. Weich did not know the information he had provided was inaccurate. In a Dec. 2 letter, the department formally withdrew the Weich denial and acknowledged that Fast and Furious was "fundamentally flawed."
Refused a subpoena
The Justice Department has taken the position that it will not share internal deliberations related to Fast and Furious that occurred after the Weich letter. In March, Mr. Weich refused a congressional subpoena for Fast and Furious documents, saying the department was concerned that information in them had been and would be released to the media. He said news stories at the time "impeded the department's efforts to hold individuals accountable for their illegal acts."
The department also maintains that the program was created by an ATF regional office to see whether it could track weapons illegally sold in the U.S. to drug smugglers in Mexico. Eighteen months ago — well into the operation — weapons purchased by straw buyers in Fast and Furious were found at the site of the shooting death of Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry.
But the committee, according to a May 3 memo, does not believe Fast and Furious was "a local effort," describing it as the Justice Department's "flagship arms trafficking investigation for a year and a half." The memo said the department's Washington headquarters approved it as part of its Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) program that put it under the control of the Arizona U.S. attorney's office.
The memo said the OCDETF designation meant Fast and Furious was able to use advanced investigative techniques, such as wiretaps, which by law required senior department officials in Washington to review operational details.
The committee also has said that some senior Justice Department officials helped write the Feb. 4, 2011, Weich letter but later had to acknowledge that they did know about gunwalking — although not the critical details about the gunwalking that took place in Fast and Furious.
"These denials are peculiar because top officials across the Justice Department received briefings on Operation Fast and Furious that included both information on surveillance techniques and the fact that hundreds of weapons were turning up at crime scenes in Mexico," the memo said.
Tom Fitton, president of Washington-based Judicial Watch, a watchdog group that has filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against ATF for Fast and Furious documents, said the committee's contempt citation "clearly lays out that Congress wants to know what the Obama administration knew and when it knew it about Fast and Furious.
"There is no evidence that [Rep. Darrell E.] Issa wants to mess up any criminal investigation," Mr. Fitton said. "The only criminal investigation the Obama gang is worried about is the potential one over Mr. Holder's contempt."
'In my wildest dreams'
With regard to Fast and Furious, a veteran ATF agent may have put it best when he was asked about the operation during a House hearing in October: "Never in my wildest dreams ever," he said, would he have thought that law enforcement authorities would allow guns to be provided to Mexican criminals.
"It infuriates me that people, including my law enforcement, diplomatic and military colleagues, may be killed or injured with these weapons," ATF Agent Carlos Canino angrily told the committee. "Walking guns," he said, was not a recognized investigative technique, adding that hundreds of weapons ultimately went to ruthless criminals in Mexico.
Mr. Canino was among several ATF agents in Mexico who were never told about Fast and Furious and learned about it when hundreds of weapons began to flood into that country from gun shops in Phoenix. Because they were "increasingly concerned and alarmed," Agent Olindo James Casa told the committee, they took the matter to their bosses, but to no avail.
Instead, they received an email they regarded as a "direct threat to the agents who were not in agreement" on how the operation should be run.
"It may sound cheesy, but we are 'The tip of the ATF spear' when it comes to Southwest border firearms trafficking. I will be damned if this case is going to suffer due to petty arguing, rumors or other adolescent behavior," wrote ATF Group VII Strike Force Supervisor David J. Voth, who oversaw the Fast and Furious operation. "If you don't think this is fun, you're in the wrong line of work — period!"
"This is the pinnacle of domestic U.S. law enforcement techniques. After this, the toolbox is empty," he wrote on March 12, 2010. "Maybe the Maricopa County Jail is hiring detention officers, and you get paid $30,000 (instead of $100,000) to serve lunch to inmates all day. We need to get over this bump in the road once and for all and get on with the mission at hand. This can be the most fun you have with ATF, the only one limiting the amount of fun we have is you!"
In his email, Mr. Voth told the agents that "close attention" was being paid to Fast and Furious by "people of rank and authority" at ATF headquarters in Washington.
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