At a “Fast & Furious: Management Failures at the Department of Justice” hearing fraught with tensions, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., testified Feb. 2 before the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform Committee.
“There is now broad bipartisan agreement that the congressional investigation into Operation Fast and Furious has exposed a serious and deadly failure of government,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R.-Calif.), the committee’s chairman, who represents San Diego suburbs.
“We know that the life of a brave Border Patrol agent has been lost along with countless Mexican citizens who have been victimized by guns from Operation Fast and Furious,” he said.
“This hearing is not about controversial struggles between gun control advocates and supporters of the Second Amendment,” he said.
“It is about the unifying, and what should be bipartisan, expectation that the Justice Department be held to a high standard and that those who failed to meet this standard should be held accountable,” he said.
In his testimony, Holder said he was happy to speak to the committee in the effort to help the committee members understand how mistakes were made in both the Fast and Furious program and Wide Receiver, a similar program operated by the previous administration.
“This is a legitimate hearing. These are legitimate concerns,” he said.
Holder said, “The tactics used in Fast and Furious were absurd, absurd.” Anyone using them today is in violation of a direct order from Holder and would be held accountable.
Fast and Furious was an operation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, where agents encouraged gun stores in the Southwest to sell weapons to suspected straw purchasers and to allow those weapons to go untracked into Mexico. Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry was killed in a Dec. 14, 2010 night ambush by a person firing an AK-47 that was allowed to “walk.” Terry’s death ended the program and the story leaked out through the Internet and whistle-blowers contacting Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R.-Iowa). Grassley passed the information to Issa.
Two themes were put out at the onset of the hearing by the Republican majority and the Democratic minority.
The Democrats’ theme had three components. First, they made constant use of the phrase: “over the last five years.” This coupled the Obama administration’s Fast and Furious with the Bush administration’s Wide Receiver, a smaller program that attempted to track weapons after the straw purchase.
Second and third, the Democrats pulled together emails and other pieces of evidence to show that under Obama BATFE ordered Fast and Furious shut down and that rogue agents with the cooperation of then-Arizona U.S. Attorney Dennis K. Burke kept Fast and Furious alive with tragic results.
The Republican theme was that Holder is not complying with their document requests in order to stall their effort to make a full report to the American people.
To illustrate their theme, the Republicans created a graphic titled “Fortress Holder,” and the center was a seven-spire castle called “StoneWall City.” The graphic used different charts to show that of the 80,000 documents the DOJ identified as relevant to Fast and Furious, only 6,000 have been given to the committee. Another showed that of the 70 DOJ officials involved in Fast and Furious, 48 have been blocked by DOJ from testifying.
During questioning by Rep. Scott E. DesJarlais (R.-Tenn.), the graphic produced one of the lighter moments of the hearing.
DesJarlais directed Holder’s attention to the graphic as it was put up on the large flat screen monitors. “Let’s take a look at StoneWall City,” he said.
Then, reading from his notes, the congressman asked, “You said you were notified probably within 24 hours of Agent Terry’s death – is that what I heard you say?”
Holder caught himself,” Oh, I’m sorry. I was just looking at Fortress Holder. It was very interesting.”
After Holder asserted that the castle was not anything like his actual house, Issa chimed in: “Actually, it looks a little like Disneyland.”
Picking up the Republican theme of Holder stonewalling, Issa then pressed the attack.
“I appreciate that everyone on both sides of the aisle has a different opinion, but the timeline is undeniable,” he said. “We have never had voluntary cooperation until we have elevated it considerably in any case.”
The chairman and the attorney general each strove to maintain cordiality, but Issa flared at Holder’s narrative concerning the “Feb. 4 Letter,” which was sent to Sen. Charles Grassley (R.-Iowa) by Ronald Welch, the assistant attorney general for legislative affairs.
The letter claimed that there was no program in the Department of Justice that sanctioned or encouraged agents to let suspected illegal gun purchasers and their guns to walk, rather than make the arrest.
Citing its inaccuracy, the Department of Justice Dec. 2 withdrew the letter.
In his testimony, Holder said he complied with the request voluntarily.
Issa said the request was made before the withdrawal, and that the initial request was denied. Then, he issued a subpoena addressed to Holder, which was ignored.
It was only after he threatened to make a formal criminal complaint regarding the falsehoods in the letter that Holder cooperated, Issa said.
During the four-and-a-half-hour hearing, not all of the 23 Republicans and 17 Democrats took the opportunity to question the attorney general. But, many of those who did provided moments worth mention.
Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D.-N.Y.), came up with a new name for the program in question: “Operation Vast and Curious.”
Rep. Stephen Lynch (D.-Mass.), who represents South Boston, the neighborhood portrayed in the movie “The Departed,” said Fast and Furious was similar to the DOJ practice of using confidential sources, which are criminals encouraged and supported by the federal government as they continue their career in crime.
Retiring Rep. Daniel Burton (R.-Ind.) took the chance to settle an old score. During the Clinton administration, Holder was the deputy attorney general under then-Attorney General Janet W. Reno.
“Nice seeing you again,” said Burton.
“It’s been a long time,” said Holder.
“Yes, it has,” said Burton, who noted that Holder was one of the officials stonewalling his requests for documents from the Clinton administration, when Burton was the committee’s chairman. “We fought to get documents and we had a difficult time,” he said.
“You said here today there are certain documents you will not give us because of the separations of powers,” he said. “Now, we have been down this road before and we got them, but had to threaten that we would issue contempt of congress citations,” he said.
“We got those documents, so I think you are hiding something behind reasons that will not stand up, so you ought to give us these documents.”