The chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has circulated to committee members a draft of a contempt of Congress resolution against Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., citing the “refusal” of the nation’s top prosecutor to cooperate in an investigation of the botched “Fast and Furious” gunrunning operation.
The 64-page draft resolution and accompanying 17-page staff briefing paper explain what Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and committee chairman, called the “reckless conduct” of the Fast and Furious investigation, the “hardships” faced by the family of a U.S. Border Patrol agent killed with a weapon purchased in the probe, how agents who blew the whistle on the operation faced retaliation, and the “carnage in Mexico” that Fast and Furious helped fuel.
“This briefing paper and draft contempt report explains the case to both members of the committee and the American people for holding Attorney General Holder in contempt of Congress,” Mr. Issa said. “Operation Fast and Furious’ outrageous tactics, the Justice Department’s refusal to fully cooperate with the investigation and efforts to smear and retaliate against whistleblowers have tainted the institutional integrity of the Justice Department.”
Fast and Furious was a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) attempt to allow “straw buyers” in Arizona to “walk” weapons into Mexico with a goal of tracking them to drug cartel leaders. But ATF lost track of hundreds of the weapons, nearly 600 of which have never been recovered.
Investigations by Mr. Issa and Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, found that ATF had allowed more than 2,000 weapons [-] including AK-47 assault rifles [-] to be “walked” to Mexican drug smugglers. Two Romanian-made AK-47s purchased during the probe were found at the site of the December 2010 shooting death of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry, 40, who was killed just north of the Arizona border town of Nogales.
Mr. Grassley noted on Thursday that the Justice Department and Mr. Holder initially denied gunwalking occurred, but have since withdrawn the denials and admitted that ATF whistleblowers were right to complain about the tactic. He said that despite the constitutional responsibility of Congress to conduct oversight of the executive branch, the Justice Department “stonewalled every step” of the Fast and Furious investigation. He said the department provided 80,000 pages of documents to its Office of Inspector General in connection with Fast and Furious, but only 6,000 pages of documents to Congress.
“Congressman Issa deserves credit for moving forward on contempt. The attorney general and the Justice Department are thumbing their nose at the constitutional authority provided to the legislative branch to conduct oversight,” Mr. Grassley said, adding that Mr. Holder is facing a “real test of leadership.”
“He can force the department to come clean, or he can force a high-stakes political conflict between the legislative and executive branches,” he said. “It´s past time to hold accountable those public officials responsible for our own government´s role in walking guns into the hands of criminals.”
Justice has denied being uncooperative in the congressional investigations, noting that Mr. Holder has testified before a number of committees on the matter. It said the department has provided other top officials for testimony and released hundreds of pages of Fast and Furious documents.
Mr. Issa’s committee held three hearings on Fast and Furious, conducted 24 transcribed interviews, sent the Justice Department over 50 letters requesting information, and issued two subpoenas on the department for documents. But the chairman said the department continues to withhold documents he described as “critical” to understanding decision making and responsibility in Fast and Furious.
The draft resolution specifically charges that Mr. Holder has not properly complied with a subpoena issued on Oct. 12, 2011, requesting documents in 22 categories.
“For over a year, the department has issued false denials, given answers intended to misdirect investigators, sought to intimidate witnesses, unlawfully withheld subpoenaed documents, and waited to be confronted with indisputable evidence before acknowledging uncomfortable facts,” the resolution said.
The resolution said the committee wants to know who among the department’s top brass should have known about the “reckless tactics” in Fast and Furious; how department leaders ended up figuring out the program was a bad idea; and how a special task force “failed” to share information that could have led to key gun-trafficking arrests.
It also noted that the “most damning assessments of the department´s handling of the fallout” from Fast and Furious came from two Justice Department officials; Kenneth Melson, former acting AFT director, and Patrick Cunningham, who was tasked by Justice with investigating ATF whistleblower allegations of gunwalking.
It said Mr. Melson told Congress “it appears thoroughly to us that the department is really trying to figure out a way to push the information away from their political appointees at the department,” and Mr. Cunningham invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination in refusing to answer questions about his work.