“There is really no responsibility within the Justice Department,” Sensenbrenner said. “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, where our subpoena powers are plenary and there can‘t be any type of legal immunity or privilege that can be asserted on that.
“But if we keep on getting pushed down the road and the can keeps getting kicked, and we don’t get closure to this, what is Congress to do so that we don’t spend all our time in court arguing privilege?” Sensenbrenner continued. “That is not a way to get at the truth.”
Sensenbrenner and other Republicans hold Holder responsible for the operation, in which federal agents failed to track illicitly purchased weapons that were later recovered in Mexico and the US, many of them at crime scenes.
LIES IN A LETTER TO CONGRESS
Sensenbrenner told Holder that “I don’t want to say you have committed a felony,” but pointed to the Justice Department’s decision earlier this month withdrawing an inaccurate letter sent last February to Senator Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. The February letter said the ATF makes every effort to intercept weapons that have been purchased illegally – an assertion that was wrong in the case of Operation Fast and Furious.
No one at the Justice Department was lying, Holder insisted. He said department officials had based their conclusion in the letter on the best information they had at the time from the Phoenix offices of ATF and the U.S. attorney.
“Why haven’t you terminated the people involved?” asked Congressman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that is investigating the arms-tracking operation.
Writing in an op-ed piece in USA Today, Issa says that he was surprised to learn that “no one at Justice Department headquarters has faced any meaningful consequences. While replacing the entire ATF leadership structure and causing the US attorney for Arizona to tender his resignation, Holder has consistently used a concurrent investigation by the inspector general to prevent him from acting against senior officials close to him.”
Issa goes on to suggest that Obama consider asking Holder to resign as attorney general if he “cannot foster a culture of accountability within his own department.”
Issa told Holder that the Justice Department has turned over 5,000 emails to the committee about Operation Fast and Furious, but “not one of these emails is yours.” The attorney general said that his department’s response to the committee’s document requests has been “fulsome” and that the Justice Department would not turn over additional emails sought by Issa. The California congressman said he wants emails from March of this year between a Holder aide and Justice Department criminal division head Lanny Breuer. Issa suggested Holder could be cited for contempt of Congress if the material is not provided.
Issa notes that “nearly a year after a US Border Patrol agent was killed by a weapon linked to the botched operation, Holder’s Justice Department has spent far more time and resources trying to salvage the careers of senior officials who knew about the operation than in creating accountability for this tragedy and ensuring that nothing like this will happen again.”
Fast and Furious began in November 2009 after calls by Justice officials to focus resources on Mexican drug cartel leaders. At its core, the operation was intended to allow straw buyers to supply drug cartels with firearms in the hope that ATF could identify cartel members after the guns recovered at crime scenes in Mexico were traced to their original place of purchase.
2000 GUNS WERE LOST
The operation’s goal was to follow the gun supply chain from small-time gun buyers at a number of Phoenix-area gun shops and make cases against major weapons traffickers. In the process, federal agents lost track of many of the more than 2,000 guns linked to the operation. Two of the guns purchased at a Phoenix gun store were recovered from the scene of a shooting that killed border agent Brian Terry on the US side of the border.
Holder claims that he did not know about Fast and Furious until a few weeks before his May 3, 2011, testimony before Congress. Yet, he was sent numerous memoranda listing Fast and Furious as a significant investigation. Now, Congressman Issa says, “it is becoming clear that even though Holder’s senior managers were fully aware of this program, they failed to end it.”
Issa cites a detailed briefing on Fast and Furious given to then-acting Deputy Attorney General Gary Grindler on March 12, 2010. Grindler’s handwritten notes show that the briefing included details on tactics and the fact that individuals were buying hundreds of weapons for Mexican cartels. Since then, Grindler has become Holder’s chief of staff.
House Judiciary Committee chairman, Congressman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said the Justice Department had given inconsistent statements about what Smith called “a reckless and dangerous law enforcement program.” Smith said many questions remain about who authorized the operation.
NOBODY KNOWS WHO WAS RESPONSIBLE, HOLDER SAYS
“We do not know who the particular person was” who decided that “this flawed operation should be conducted,” Holder said.
Amid probes by Republicans in Congress and the Justice Department’s inspector general, the department already has replaced US Attorney Dennis Burke in Phoenix, acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson and the lead prosecutor in Operation Fast and Furious.
Holder said he is prepared to take other steps, with additional personnel changes possible. The inspector general’s office at the Justice Department is investigating what went wrong in Operation Fast and Furious, but “that does not lessen the responsibility I have as head manager,” Holder said.
Operation Fast and Furious was “a regional operation” and not “top to bottom,” said Holder. The tactic at issue was not a decision made in Washington, Holder said.
In explaining why the letter contained inaccuracies, Holder said “we were rushed” in responding to Grassley’s inquiries. He said it would have been better to take two weeks to respond rather than the four or five days department lawyers set as their deadline.
Grassley, whose inquiry first brought the tactic used in Operation Fast and Furious to light, is calling for Breuer’s resignation.
Breuer has said he made a mistake in not telling Holder and the deputy attorney general that the gun-walking tactic had been used in an earlier ATF probe called Operation Wide Receiver, which Breuer had known about since April 2010.
Grassley said that in addition to not informing his superiors, Breuer gave misleading answers when the senator asked whether Breuer had reviewed a draft of the inaccurate Justice Department letter to Congress last February.
Breuer told Congress he cannot say for sure whether he saw a draft of the inaccurate letter and that he has no recollection of having done so. His recollection is called into question because at the time the letter was drafted, Breuer wrote one of the letter’s main drafters in an e-mail, “As usual, great work.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.