Attorney General Eric Holder admitted on Thursday that e-mails from his computer were withheld from a congressional investigation into Operation Fast and Furious, angering lawmakers who threatened the nation’s top cop with impeachment and contempt charges.
“These are materials we have not and will not produce,” Holder testified during the combative day-long hearing before the House Judiciary Committee.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R.-Calif.) compared Holder to disgraced Attorney General John Mitchell of Watergate infamy, as he threatened to bring contempt charges against him for refusing to divulge the documents.
“Have you no shame?” Holder snapped at Issa, likening the questioning to Sen. Joe McCarthy’s hearings held to expose Communists in the ’50s.
Issa criticized Holder for dodging any blame in the operation’s failure, and demanded that everyone implicated in the matter be terminated.
“I have no confidence in a President who has full confidence in an attorney general who has in fact not terminated,” or reprimanded, department officials involved, Issa said.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R.-Wis.) suggested impeachment is lawmakers’ only remaining option for Holder if he continues to withhold information. Still Holder insisted he knew nothing about Fast and Furious until months after the death of a federal agent.
“The wagons down the street are in a pretty tight circle, Mr. Attorney General,” Sensenbrenner said. “The American people need the truth. They haven’t gotten the truth from what has been coming out of the Justice Department in the last year, and they are relying on Congress to get the truth. The answers that you have given so far, are basically saying somebody else did it.”
“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,” Sensenbrenner said.
Nearly 50 Republican lawmakers have called for Holder’s resignation because of Fast and Furious, an operation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) that promoted the sale of guns in an effort to track the weapons to Mexican drug cartels. However, government officials lost track of some 2,000 weapons, and the operation was canceled after two guns were used in the murder of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
“I have no intention of resigning,” Holder told the panel. “I’m the attorney general who put an end to these misguided tactics in Fast and Furious when I found out about them.”
At the heart of the congressional investigation is an attempt to determine exactly when Holder and other top government officials first learned about the operation that began in 2009 and ended after Terry’s death in December 2010, and whether there has been a coverup of that knowledge.
Holder told lawmakers during a May hearing that he was not informed about the operation until a few weeks prior, but said yesterday that he asked the Justice Department’s inspector general in February to investigate the matter.
“A couple of months might have been more precise, but a couple of weeks is still accurate,” Holder said.
Numerous murders in Mexico have been linked to the guns, the sales of which were sanctioned by federal officials through U.S. dealers, and Holder predicted that more deaths are likely.
“Although the Department has taken steps to ensure that such tactics are never used again, it is an unfortunate reality that we will continue to feel the effects of this flawed operation for years to come,” Holder said. “Guns lost during this operation will continue to show up at crime scenes on both sides of the border.”
Holder told the panel that there has been an indictment in the murder of Terry, but that it remains sealed, and he declined to discuss it further.
Holder disputed accusations that a top aide deliberately lied in a letter to Congress that the gun sales were sanctioned, and the weapons were allowed to “walk” across the border to Mexico.
“Tell me, what’s the difference between lying and misleading Congress, in this context?” Sensenbrenner asked. “Obviously there have been statements so misleading that a letter had to be withdrawn.”
Responded Holder: “Well, if you want to have this legal conversation, it all has to do with your state of mind, and whether or not you had the requisite intent to come up with something that would be considered perjury or a lie. The information that was provided by the Feb. 4 letter was gleaned by the people who drafted the letter after they interacted with people who they thought were in the best position to have the information.”
Republican lawmakers also criticized the agency for using the tragedy and the sanctioned sale of guns to build a case for tracking the purchases of all long guns sold in the U.S., which CBS News revealed Wednesday through e-mails they obtained from the ATF.
“You ought not to use your screwup as a basis to extend your authority,” said Rep. Dan Lungren (R.-Calif.).
Holder defended the action as a lesson learned from Fast and Furious that the agency lacked “effective enforcement tools” to stem the flow of guns from the U.S. to Mexico.
“Going forward, I hope that we can work together to provide law enforcement agents with the tools they desperately need to protect the country and ensure their own safety,” Holder said. “For their sake, we cannot afford to allow the tragic mistakes of Operation Fast and Furious to become a political sideshow or a series of media opportunities.”
Numerous Democratic lawmakers say the registration of long guns is a reasonable measure, and have told Holder they support his efforts.