- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 8, 2011

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., during a rancorous House committee hearing Thursday, dismissed Republican calls to fire top Justice Department officials involved in the botched Fast and Furious weapons operation and repudiated charges that his agency lied to Congress during the investigation.

Mr. Holder said the department’s leadership was not told of the “inappropriate tactics employed” in the operation that allowed more than 2,000 weapons to be walked into Mexico, and dubbed as “remarkable” accusations that top Justice Department officials had hatched the plan.

Advised by Republican lawmakers during the often-angry hearing that “heads should roll,” he told the House Judiciary Committee that the Justice Department had been “fully cooperative and responsive in its dealings with Congress” and had handed over nearly 5,000 pages of documents for congressional investigators to review.

“Just last week, we provided unprecedented access to internal deliberative documents to explain how inaccurate information was initially conveyed to Congress,” he said.

In explaining how lawmakers had been misled about the operation in several initial reports, Mr. Holder said those documents demonstrated that department personnel relied on information provided by supervisors in the field, but that some of that information was inaccurate.

“The documents produced to date also belie the remarkable notion that this operation was conceived by department leaders, as some have claimed,” he said. “It is my understanding that department leaders were not informed about the inappropriate tactics employed in this operation until those tactics were made public and, as is customary, turned to those with supervisory responsibility over the operation in an effort to learn the facts.”

Many Republican committee members challenged the attorney general’s explanations, saying Mr. Holder needed to fire some of the department’s top officials.

“Heads should roll,” said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, suggesting that impeachment was an option if Mr. Holder failed to “clean up this mess” quickly, although he didn’t specifically name an impeachment target.

Mr. Sensenbrenner told Mr. Holder, “There is really no responsibility within the Justice Department. The thing is, if we don’t get to the bottom of this - and that requires your assistance on that there is only one alternative that Congress has and it is called impeachment.”
Committee member Rep. Darrell E. Issa, a California Republican who also has been investigating Fast and Furious as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, was more direct in placing blame for the failed operation, telling the attorney general that responsibility for the botched operation “must go to your desk.”

Mr. Issa said Congress has been “systematically lied to” by department officials, and at one point, Mr. Issa and Mr. Sensenbrenner reminded Mr. Holder that lying to Congress was a federal felony.

“Nobody in the Justice Department has lied,” said Mr. Holder, adding that the department did not intentionally give false information to Congress.

“I am here to tell the truth,” he said, adding in response to a question that he had “no intention of resigning.”

Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican and the committee’s chairman, set the hearing tone early, accusing the Justice Department in his opening statement of failing to cooperate in the panel’s ongoing investigation of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ operation called Fast and Furious and the death of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry.

“Operation Fast and Furious intentionally allowed straw buyers for criminal organizations to purchase hundreds of guns so the ATF could track them across the U.S.-Mexico border. But Fast and Furious had a fatal flaw. Once purchased, there was no attempt to follow the firearms,” Mr. Smith said.

“Instead, the guns were allowed to cross over into Mexico without any coordination with Mexican authorities or any attempt to track the firearms,” he said. “Tragically, two of the guns were found at the scene of the shooting death of Customs and Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry. And by the department’s own admission, hundreds of guns remain unaccounted for.”

Mr. Smith said it has been a year since the Terry death, but many questions remain as to how such a “reckless and dangerous law enforcement program” was allowed to proceed. He said “inconsistent” statements from Justice Department officials about who knew what and when have only raised more concerns.

More than 2,000 weapons illegally purchased by straw buyers at Arizona gun shops were allowed to be walked unabated to drug smugglers in Mexico. More than 1,400 of the weapons are still unaccounted for. Two AK-47s semi-automatic assault rifles purchased as a part of Fast and Furious were found at the scene of the Terry killing.

Mr. Holder, the committee’s lone witness, said it was “inexcusable” for the Justice Department to have allowed weapons to be “walked” to Mexico, but said he has taken steps to ensure the “flawed tactics” used in Fast and Furious - and in earlier operations under the Bush administration - are never repeated.

“As I have repeatedly stated, allowing guns to ‘walk’ - whether in this administration or in the prior one - is wholly unacceptable,” he said. “The use of this misguided tactic is inexcusable. And it must never happen again.”

Mr. Holder said that soon after learning about allegations raised by ATF agents involved with Fast and Furious, he took action to ensure accountability, including asking the department’s office of inspector general to investigate the matter. He said he also ordered that a directive be sent to law enforcement agents and prosecutors prohibiting such tactics.

On Wednesday, Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who began the Fast and Furious investigation nearly a year ago, called for the resignation of Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer, who heads the department’s criminal division.

Mr. Grassley said it was “past time for accountability at the senior levels of the Justice Department” with regard to their responses in the Fast and Furious probe and that Mr. Breuer had played a significant role in the drafting of a letter in February denying ATF had ever walked guns to Mexico. Mr. Grassley said the Justice Department acknowledged in October that Mr. Breuer had known as far back as April 2010 about gun-walking at ATF.

Mr. Sensenbrenner joined Mr. Grassley in calling for the Breuer resignation, saying the “American people need to know the truth.” Mr. Holder said he would not ask for Mr. Breuer’s resignation based on the information he has now.

During several rounds of questioning, Mr. Issa had a number of testy exchanges with Mr. Holder, accusing the attorney general at one point of “filibustering.” He also asked Mr. Holder whether he would voluntarily come before his Oversight and Government Reform Committee in January or would he and his top aides have to be served with a subpoena.

Mr. Holder said he would consider any request but noted that he already had testified four times about the Fast and Furious operation.
Mr. Issa also accused Mr. Holder of “withholding documents,” noting that one licensed gun dealer involved in Fast and Furious had given his committee five boxes of records but that the Justice Department had turned over only one box. He also questioned why there were no emails from Mr. Holder in the 5,000 pages of documents turned over by the Justice Department.

At one point, Mr. Issa suggested that Mr. Holder was offering the same responses as former Attorney General John Mitchell under President Nixon from 1969 to 1972, who ended up going jail for his role in Watergate. Mr. Holder, taken aback, objected to the Mitchell reference, saying, “As they said in the McCarthy hearings, have you no shame.”

• Chuck Neubauer can be reached at cneubauer@washingtontimes.com.

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