U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder denied the Justice Department was impeding a Republican probe into Operation Fast and Furious, the botched gun-trafficking investigation in Arizona tied to the 2010 killing of a Border Patrol agent, in Capitol Hill testimony Thursday.
Answering questions about Fast and Furious before Congress for the sixth time in a year, Holder again told lawmakers he had not authorized the operation's controversial "gun-walking" tactics, which allowed illegal guns to fall into the hands of Mexican drug traffickers. He called those tactics "unacceptable" and "stupid," and said he has issued a directive banning their future use.
Holder also said the Justice Department would consider complying with a congressional subpoena demanding tens of thousands of pages of sensitive documents related to the gun-trafficking probe. But he said many of those documents involved internal deliberations over the congressional inquiry and were legally exempt from disclosure. The Justice Department has already turned over more than 6,000 pages of documents to the House oversight committee investigating Fast and Furious.
"There's no attempt at any kind of cover-up," Holder said. "We've shared huge amounts of information and we will continue to share huge amounts of information."
Republicans subjected Holder to withering criticism during the nearly four-hour hearing, with some lawmakers calling for his resignation. Others accused him of deliberately blocking the GOP-led probe.
"It appears we're being stonewalled," Dan Burton (R-Ind.) said while questioning Holder.
Darrell Issa, chairman of the House panel, again drew attention to a letter provided to Congress early in the inquiry denying that agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had allowed guns to "walk" and end up in the hands of criminals. The Justice Department later withdrew that letter and acknowledged it was incorrect.
Holder said an inquiry by the Justice Department's inspector general prevents him from taking action against agency officials and staff responsible for wrongdoing or mistakes during Fast and Furious and the subsequent congressional probe.
"I think we're pretty close to making some announcements," Holder said. "We will hold accountable people who were involved in this flawed investigation."
Several Democrats, meanwhile, denounced the hearing as political theater and drew attention to the failure of Republicans to hold a single hearing on the broader problem of illegal gun trafficking from the U.S. into Mexico, which Mexican authorities blame for fueling drug violence.
Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) noted that Republicans have long opposed passing federal laws that would target the trafficking of guns across the border.
"Makes one wonder what this hearing is all about," Connolly said.
Operation Fast and Furious was originally designed to trace guns purchased in large quantities in the U.S. by "straw buyers" and smuggled across the border by Mexican drug trafficking organizations. The operation, part of a larger effort to disrupt drug cartels, went awry and agents lost track of hundreds of guns.
In December 2010, two guns tied to Fast and Furious were found at the scene of a shootout in Arizona that claimed the life of Brian Terry, a Border Patrol agent. A public controversy erupted after the guns' origin was revealed by an ATF whistleblower.
The operation has been widely condemned by both Democrats and Republicans, and in Thursday's hearing Democrats on the oversight committee expressed their own outrage that guns had been allowed to fall into the hands of drug cartels.
Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), asked for Holder's opinion on whether top Justice Department officials should be required to sign off when federal agents willfully allow criminal activity in the course of an investigation. Lynch drew a parallel between Fast and Furious and the FBI's use of mobsters in Boston as confidential informants, despite their links to numerous killings.
"Here, everyone escaped responsibility because of plausible deniability," Lynch said. "That's troubling to me. That scares the hell out of me."
Holder said it was a "legitimate question," but urged caution. "We don't want to go too far in this sense," he said. "We have to have that ability. It's an extremely important law enforcement technique."
Also Thursday, the family of Brian Terry filed a $25 million wrongful death claim against ATF, calling the agency "negligent" in its oversight of Fast and Furious. The lawsuit said Terry's death was the "natural consequence" of the agency's decision to allow illegal guns to fall into the hands of drug traffickers.
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