Court-sealed wiretap applications obtained by a House committee show that senior Justice Department officials in Washington, contrary to previous denials, were given specific information about the “reckless tactics” in the botched Fast and Furious gunrunning investigation, the panel’s chairman said Tuesday.
In a letter, Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, rebuked Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. for what he called Mr. Holder’s “continuing efforts to mislead Congress” about the content of the wiretap applications and details of who knew about and gave approval for the operation.
Mr. Issa’s note said the attorney general denied knowledge of the wiretap applications and cast doubt that they contained specific information about the operation, prompting a vigorous pushback including charges that the applications were leaked illegally and that Mr. Issa had mischaracterized them.
Mr. Holder has refused to produce many of the subpoenaed Fast and Furious documents showing that senior Justice Department officials reviewed and authorized the wiretaps, Mr. Issa said.
“The [Justice] Department has consistently denied that any senior officials were provided information about the tactics used in Operation Fast and Furious,” Mr. Issa said. “The wiretap applications obtained by the committee show such statements made by senior department officials regarding the wiretaps to be false and misleading.”
Wiretaps used in the Fast and Furious operation were intended to let investigators in Arizona listen to the phone calls of suspected drug traffickers in order to find evidence of involvement by high-level Mexican cartel associates, Mr. Issa said.
He said six applications for wiretaps obtained by the committee, which had been sealed by a federal judge as part of ongoing criminal cases, detail specific actions taken by Fast and Furious agents, including “conscious decisions not to interdict weapons that agents knew were illegally purchased by smugglers taking weapons to Mexico.”
He said the applications were approved by senior Justice Department officials in March, April, May, June and July of 2010.
The wiretaps, as required by federal law, were submitted to Washington for approval by senior Justice Department officials, Mr. Issa said, adding that they were approved under the authority of Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer.
But Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said senior department officials were not aware of the flawed tactics in Fast and Furious until they became public in early 2011, and the testimony Mr. Holder and others have given over the past year at numerous hearings, briefings and interviews was true and accurate.
“Unfortunately, Chairman Issa continues to distort the facts and ignore the law,” she said.
Ms. Schmaler also said the department cannot comment on the contents of court-sealed wiretap applications and was “very concerned that such documents relating to ongoing criminal cases have been leaked.” She said the unauthorized disclosure of court-sealed materials was illegal.
“The claims that the wiretap applications prove the Criminal Division or anyone at the Department of Justice approved these flawed tactics remain as inaccurate as they were when they were first made over a year ago,” she said, adding that wiretap applications do not provide complete descriptions of all law-enforcement actions taken during the course of the investigation or of the overall operational strategies.
“The committee also knows full well that Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer did not review the wiretap applications in Fast and Furious,” she said. “That does not stop the committee, however, from falsely asserting that Assistant Attorney General Breuer was responsible for authorizing them.”
In a separate letter Tuesday to the House Republican leadership, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole challenged the “tone and content” of the Issa letter, saying it was “clear” that sealed court documents in a pending federal investigation had been disclosed to the committee.
“This is of great concern to us,” he said. “While we are legally prohibited from commenting on the content of sealed court documents, we disagree with the chairman’s assertions.”
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, ranking Democrat on the committee, said in yet another letter Tuesday, this one to Mr. Issa, that he was concerned the chairman had “mischaracterized the contents and significance of the wiretap applications.”
Mr. Cummings said Mr. Issa had omitted critical facts, which undermined his conclusions and distorted his representations, though he did not go into detail on how. In addition, parts of the Cummings letter had been redacted.
“I continue to hope that we can work together in a cooperative and bipartisan manner that does not compromise criminal investigations and prosecutions,” he said.
The committee and Republican leaders in the House warned Mr. Holder in a letter last month that he must fully address concerns outlined by investigators in the Fast and Furious operation or face a contempt citation.
A 64-page draft contempt resolution and an accompanying 17-page staff briefing paper explained what Mr. Issa called the “reckless conduct” of the Fast and Furious investigation and the “hardships” faced by the family of a U.S. Border Patrol agent killed with a weapon purchased in the probe.
As the wiretaps have been sealed, the committee said it cannot publicly release them, but copies have been sent to the committee minority and the wiretaps were made available for review by the full committee.