Citing leaked, confidential court documents, a senior Republican lawmaker accused Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday of misleading Congress over the involvement of top Justice Department officials in a botched gun trafficking investigation.
The contentious House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing came just days after Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said he received court-sealed wiretap applications associated with Operation Fast and Furious, an Arizona gun trafficking investigation that allowed suspected criminals to purchase thousands of firearms and smuggle them into Mexico.
For well over a year, Issa has sought to hold senior Department of Justice officials responsible for Fast and Furious, which exploded after a Border Patrol agent was killed in early 2011 with a gun linked to the operation. Holder and other DOJ officials maintain that they were not directly involved in the decision to authorize "gun-walking," the tactic of allowing guns to slip into criminal hands.
Gun-walking was intended to allow federal agents to track gun movement across the border and into the hands of drug cartels, as part of a larger operation to disrupt high-level arms trafficking in the Southwest. But agents lost track of hundreds of guns, some of which were later found at crime scenes in the U.S and Mexico.
The Fast and Furious wiretap applications, which remain sealed by federal court order, were not requested as part of a wide-ranging committee subpoena of DOJ documents related to the operation. Issa did not release the contents of the applications, but described them at length in a letter to Holder earlier this week. At Thursday's hearing, he said they were provided by a "furious group of whistleblowers."
"These wiretap applications, which we did not subpoena but which were given to us by a furious group of whistleblowers that are tired of your stonewalling, indicate that a number of key individuals in your administration in fact were responsible for information contained in here, that clearly shows that the tactics of Fast and Furious were known," Issa said to Holder.
"I have read them and I disagree with the conclusion that you just reached," Holder responded. He added that "nothing in those affidavits" indicated that guns were being allowed to "walk" into the hands of criminals.
Holder said he could not discuss the contents of the wiretap applications without violating a federal court order. But he said his opinion was roughly the same as the one expressed by Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, in a June 5 letter to Issa.
In the letter, Cummings blasted Issa for mischaracterizing the contents of the wiretap applications and omitting critical facts. The letter was heavily redacted to "protect the integrity" of ongoing investigations and prosecutions, Cummings said.
In describing the wiretap applications, Issa made "a key omission that completely undermines your conclusions and distorts your representations," Cummings wrote.
At the beginning of the hearing, Holder told Judiciary Committee chairman Lamar Smith that he did not personally learn of the gun-walking tactics until early 2011, two months after the death of Border Patrol agent Bryan Terry.
The controversy over Fast and Furious led to the August 2011 ouster of the acting head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which supervised key aspects of the investigation, and the departure of the top federal prosecutor in Arizona. But it has yet to claim any senior Justice Department personnel, despite Issa's dogged efforts.
For the past several months, Issa has attempted to persuade the Republican leadership to move forward with a contempt of Congress citation against Holder for failing to provide documents demanded by his subpoena. House leaders have not authorized such a dramatic step, which would require a full congressional vote.
In May, Boehner did not endorse a contempt of Congress citation, but said that "all options are on the table" in the Fast and Furious investigation. "I do believe that when it comes to Fast and Furious that we've got to get to the bottom of what happened and who's responsible," Boehner said.