An investigation into the Justice Department’s “Fast and Furious” gunrunning probe, which allowed hundreds of weapons to be illegally “walked” into Mexico, is not the first time Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s truthfulness has been challenged by members of Congress.
In 2001, the House Government Reform Committee questioned the accuracy of Mr. Holder’s depiction of what he did as deputy attorney general in the last-minute pardon by President Clinton of fugitive financier Marc Rich, whose former wife, Denise Rich, had donated $1.3 million to Democrats.
Two years earlier, Mr. Holder came under fire for refusing to tell a Senate committee whether the Justice Department had recommended against Mr. Clinton’s offer of clemency to 16 Puerto Rican nationalists a month after then-Attorney General Janet Reno said their release posed a national security threat.
More recently, Mr. Holder was questioned on his refusal to allow Justice Department officials to testify in separate inquiries by Congress and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in their handling of the New Black Panther Party civil complaint, in which charges of voter intimidation were ordered dropped after the case had been won in court.
In the latest flap, Mr. Holder has been accused of a “lack of trustworthiness” in telling what he knew about the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ Fast and Furious probe. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, said statements made under oath by Mr. Holder about the operation have “proven to be untrue,” adding that his failure to “come clean” with the America public “called into question” his credibility to serve as attorney general.
Mr. Issa and Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who also has been investigating the ATF operation, said more than 2,000 weapons were purchased by straw buyers at Phoenix-area gun shops, then turned over to handlers in the U.S., who transported them to drug smugglers in Mexico. The ATF has acknowledged that it lost control of the weapons after they had been purchased, giving gunrunners nearly a free pass across the border.
Two AK-47 assault rifles found in December at the site of the killing of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry were traced back to Fast and Furious.
Mr. Holder told the committee he first learned about Fast and Furious in late April or early May, but recently released memos show he received briefing papers and reports on the operation on at least five occasions beginning as early as July 2010. He has denied knowing any specifics of the Fast and Furious probe before April, but he said he took “decisive action” when he finally learned of it, ordering the Office of Inspector General to investigate the matter.
Congressional investigators are expected to issue new subpoenas this week for testimony from Mr. Holder; his chief of staff, Gary Grindler; and Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, who heads the Criminal Division.
Mr. Holder addressed the Fast and Furious debate during a news conference on Tuesday on a suspected Iranian terrorist plot. He said, “What I want the American people to understand is that in complying with those subpoenas and dealing with that inquiry, that will not detract us from the important business that we have here to do at the Justice Department, including matters like the one that we have announced today.”
In a letter to congressional leaders this week, Mr. Holder said he had “no recollection of knowing about ‘Fast and Furious’ or of hearing its name prior to the public controversy about it. Prior to early 2011, I certainly never knew about the tactics employed in the operation.”
Asked about questions concerning Mr. Holder’s credibility, Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said Mr. Holder’s letter “lays out why the facts refute such criticism.” She also said Mr. Holder has been “accurate and truthful and has been consistent throughout.”
Actions were ‘consistent’
Even though the controversy surrounding the Rich pardon happened nearly decade earlier, the issue surfaced during Mr. Holder’s confirmation hearing before the Senate in 2009. “As I indicated in my opening statement, I made mistakes,” he said. “And my conduct, my actions in the Rich matter was a place where I made mistakes.”
In the Rich matter, Mr. Holder said at the time that his actions were “consistent” with his duties and responsibilities as deputy attorney general. In February 2001, he testified that he was not “intimately involved or overly interested” in the government’s $48 million fraud case against Mr. Rich, that the case “did not stand out as one that was particularly meritorious,” and that he “never devoted a great deal of time to this matter.”
He also testified that he had “only a passing familiarity with the underlying facts” of the case and had “no memory” of Mr. Rich’s attorney, former Clinton White House Counsel Jack Quinn telling him he would file a pardon request on behalf of his client directly with the White House, bypassing the normal Justice Department pardon process.
But public records show Mr. Holder’s interest in the Rich case surfaced in October 1999, 15 months before the pardon, when he met privately with Mr. Quinn for a presentation about what the Rich defense thought were flaws in the government’s case.
Following that briefing, Mr. Holder sought to arrange a meeting for Mr. Quinn with prosecutors in New York who had handled the case, although the government lawyers refused the request because, in part, Mr. Rich had been a fugitive for 17 years and had taken no steps to turn himself in.
Mr. Quinn acknowledged that he personally lobbied the president and Mr. Holder for the pardon. A Nov. 18, 2000, email from Mr. Quinn to his Washington law firm also acknowledged Mr. Holder’s involvement in the pardon process. The email said: “Subject: Eric … spoke to him last evening he says go straight to wh. also says timing is good. we shd get in soon. will elab when we speak.”
In his February 2001 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mr. Quinn said he “personally notified Mr. Holder in his office on Nov. 21, 2000, that I would be sending a pardon application directly to the White House. I told him then that I hoped to encourage the White House to seek his views. He said that I should do so, and I did later encourage the White House to seek his views.”
Mr. Quinn also said he “hoped the consultation with Mr. Holder by the White House would help me make my case for Mr. Rich, because I believed Mr. Holder was familiar with the charges and with our arguments as to the flaws in the indictment.”
Mr. Clinton said at the time that he awarded the pardon based on the merits of the case as argued by Mr. Quinn and that contributions to the Democratic Party from Mr. Rich’s ex-wife had nothing to do with the decision.
The Rich pardon was among 176 pardons and commutations issued by Mr. Clinton less than two hours before he left the White House for the final time as president.
Rep. Dan Burton, Indiana Republican, who chaired the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee at the time, said Mr. Holder “certainly had more than a passing familiarity with this case.” He said Mr. Holder “abdicated his responsibilities as the deputy attorney general and took actions that ensured the Justice Department would have no meaningful input” on the pardon.
In a report, Republicans cited a typewritten note sent by Mr. Quinn to Mr. Holder 10 days before the Jan. 20, 2001, pardon. It said, “Your saying positive things, I’m told, would make this happen. Thanks for your consideration.”
House committee Democrats, led by Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, said Mr. Rich and his business partner, Pincus Green, “did not deserve the pardons they received from President Clinton,” but the committee’s Republican members had failed to prove that any Clinton administration official “was bribed or otherwise corrupted.”
In the clemency order for the 16 convicted Puerto Rican nationalists, Mr. Holder cited a claim of executive privilege by Mr. Clinton in refusing to tell a Senate committee whether the Justice Department had recommended against the president’s offer of clemency.
The committee’s then-chairman, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, said the Justice Department had described the release from prison of members of the Armed Forces of National Liberation, known by the Spanish acronym FALN, and a separate terrorist group known as Los Macheteros, as an increase to the national security threat to the United States. In granting clemency, Mr. Hatch said Mr. Clinton had set free people who had engaged in sedition and openly advocated war against the United States.
Mr. Clinton granted clemency to the 16 convicted terrorists after determining that their prison sentences were excessive, given that none was directly involved in bombings the group carried out from 1974 to 1983 that killed six people. He also denied that the decision was political, based on first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s then-pending run for a Senate seat in New York.
But the president refused a congressional subpoena for details about the clemency offer and cited executive privilege to prevent his staff and the Justice Department from being questioned about the recommendation. Mr. Holder told the committee that he could not say whether the Justice Department recommended against the clemency offer because of the claim of executive privilege and also declined to comment on a July 1997 letter from the department’s former pardon attorney, Margaret Colgate Love, to White House Counsel Charles F.C. Ruff quoting a December 1996 report recommending against clemency for the FALN members.
Republicans charged at the time that Mr. Holder had pushed some of his Justice Department subordinates to drop their opposition to granting clemency, and questions were raised about whether he instructed staff members at the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney to replace the department’s original report recommending against any commutations, which had been sent to the White House in 1996, with one that favored clemency for at least half the prisoners.
After Pardon Attorney Roger Adams resisted, Mr. Holder’s chief of staff instructed him to draft a neutral “options memo” instead, which allowed Mr. Clinton to grant the commutations without appearing to oppose the Justice Department’s position.
FBI counterterrorism official Neil J. Gallagher told a House committee a month earlier that the 16 offered clemency were not the nonviolent criminals as they were portrayed, but that they had a direct hand in actual or potential deaths and injuries. He said they represented a “threat to the United States” and their release would have a “psychological and operation impact on active terrorist organizations [that could] reinvigorate them.” During the hearing, an FBI surveillance video showed two of the men at a table assembling bombs.
Mr. Hatch and Mr. Grassley, along with Republican Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, John Ashcroft of Missouri and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, along with the panel’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, criticized the Justice Department for failing to contact victims of FALN violence concerning the clemency offer.
At his 2009 confirmation hearing, Mr. Holder said: “When one looks at the nature of the offenses that put those people in jail, these were criminals. These were terrorists. These were bad people. But the president’s determination was that they had not committed any acts themselves that resulted in death or bodily injury.”