Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano faced a determined panel of House Republicans on Wednesday who grilled her on immigration policies, border security, and how her agency responded after the death of a federal officer exposed the “Fast and Furious” controversy.
Her answers were brief and not very forthcoming, as she sidestepped some questions and invoked the ongoing inspector’s general investigation as her mantra to avoid many questions altogether.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R.-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is leading the investigation into the government’s failed operation to track 1,000 guns pouring into the hands of a Mexican drug cartel. He sat in on the Judiciary Committee’s oversight hearing to ask questions about his investigation, but quickly became exasperated with Napolitano’s answers after inquiring what her agency did for three months after Border Patrol Officer Brian Terry was shot, and prior to the beginning of the investigation.
“You have two dead agents who worked for you. It has been months, and you’re telling me you weren’t doing anything because of an inspector general investigation?” Issa pressed.
“Now wait just a minute!” Napolitano responded, objecting to Issa’s “insinuation.”
“Aren’t you outraged?” Issa said. “Aren’t you furious?”
Napolitano initially said she would respond to Issa’s questions in writing, but after several more questions about the operation, she answered: “I think we all should be outraged at the death of agent Terry, and the first thing to recognize is who actually killed him.”
After Terry’s death, Napolitano said she met with the FBI and was briefed on their investigation into who committed the murder, but said she was never informed that the crime was committed with two guns acquired through Fast and Furious.
“That was my No. 1 concern, that those responsible for the shooting death were brought to justice, and that is what I was being kept apprised of,” Napolitano said.
Napolitano said she never had a conversation with Holder or anyone else about the operation while it was ongoing, and has still not discussed the matter with Holder.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R.-Va.) asked how often the Homeland Security secretary met with the attorney general to discuss security issues or ongoing investigations.
“Not that frequently,” Napolitano said.
Goodlatte suggested they should meet frequently, and that better communication might have produced the revelation that “Whoa! This is a crazy idea to give guns to drug smugglers,” and prevent future questionable operations from ending in tragedy.
Throughout the hearing, Republicans grilled Napolitano on the Obama administration’s immigration policies, including amnesty through prosecutorial discretion, how they are enforcing Alabama’s new law, and border and worksite enforcement.
Democrats focused their questioning on concerns that detainees were transferred too many times, and too far away from family or legal counsel, and how officials were dealing with complaints of sexual assault and harassment.
On Alabama’s new law that allows schools to check legal status and police to hold illegal immigrant suspects, Napolitano said the only support Homeland Security has provided is in helping the Justice Department challenge the law.
Questioning Napolitano about the Government Accountability Office report that only 44% of the Southwest border is under the “operational control” of the Border Patrol, Rep. Ted Poe (R.-Tex.) wanted to know who controls the other 56%?
Napolitano said the term “operational control” was a “term of art” that was “somewhat misleading,” but didn’t answer the question.
“It’s a very different border than it was three years ago,” Napolitano said.
“I agree, it’s worse,” Poe responded.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R. –Texas), chairman of the committee, later clarified that “only 15% of the border is under actual control.”
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner wanted to know how much longer the department would delay the REAL ID program, which requires states to comply with certain federal guidelines for identification cards and driver’s licenses. He later expressed disappointment that she “evaded my question four times.”
Napolitano’s evasiveness on many answers frustrated several lawmakers during the three-hour hearing.
“I’m amazed at some of the answers you’ve given, knowing that you were coming before this committee,” said Rep. Sandy Adams (R.-Fla.).