Holder spars with GOP members of House Judiciary panel
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told a House committee Thursday that “inappropriate tactics” were used in an effort to stem the flow of illegal guns across the Southwest border, including the botched Fast and Furious investigation, but sidestepped questions on who in the Justice Department approved such an operation.
Sparring with Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee, Mr. Holder refused to be pinned down on details of the undercover probe that led to hundreds of weapons — including semi-automatic assault rifles — being “walked” to drug smugglers in Mexico, many of which are still missing.
Asked directly by Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican and the committee’s chairman, for the identity of the “highest-ranking official in this administration that knew that these tactics were being used,” Mr. Holder said only that the operation began in Arizona and he did not know who beyond that was aware of the investigation.
At one point, Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has been investigating Fast and Furious for more than a year, cut off Mr. Holder saying, “You are not a good witness. A good witness answers the questions asked.”
Mr. Issa said senior Justice Department officials knew about the gunwalking tactics in the first part of 2010 when they approved wiretap applications — months before Fast and Furious weapons were found along the border at the Dec. 15, 2010, killing site of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry.
“I have read them” Mr. Holder said of the wiretap applications, adding he disagreed with Mr. Issa’s conclusion. “I have looked at the affidavits, and there is nothing in there that indicates gunwalking was allowed.”
Earlier, Mr. Issa had tried to get Mr. Holder to answer questions on what steps the Justice Department took to comply with an Oct. 21 subpoena by the committee for Fast and Furious documents. His committee has drafted a contempt of Congress resolution against Mr. Holder for not responding to the subpoena.
Mr. Holder ordered the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General to investigate Fast and Furious more than a year ago and said on Thursday he thought the inquiry would be finished “relatively soon.”
House Republicans have been concerned about the Fast and Furious operation since Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, first disclosed early last year that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) knew that weapons purchased by “straw buyers” in Arizona were being walked to drug cartel members in Mexico but failed to stop them.
ATF and the Justice Department have come under heavy criticism for allowing more than 2,000 weapons, including hundreds of AK-47 assault rifles, to be walked across the border. ATF allowed the transfers so as to track the weapons to drug-cartel leaders, but the agency lost track of most of them.
Mr. Holder said he did not know the number of guns that had been recovered from Fast and Furious. “I have heard different numbers from 800 to 1,200,” he said.
In his opening statement, Mr. Holder said “we now know of several Arizona-based investigations that occurred under this administration and the previous one where inappropriate tactics were used in an attempt to stem the flow of illegal guns across the Southwest border.”
But he said he first became aware of the gunwalking tactic in February 2011 about the same time as the public. He said that after he learned that two Fast and Furious weapons were found at the scene of Agent Terry’s killing, he ordered the tactic stopped.
Last month, House Speaker John A. Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy and Mr. Issa said in a letter to Mr. Holder that as co-equal branches of the U.S. government, the relationship between the legislative and executive branches must be predicated on honest communications and cannot be clouded by allegations of obstruction.
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