As Congress prepares to charge Attorney General Eric Holder with contempt on Thursday for his refusal to deliver documents tied to Operation Fast and Furious, irate Democrats attacked the accuracy and integrity of the Republican probe into the troubled Arizona gun-trafficking investigation, calling it biased and incomplete.
Democrats on Wednesday noted that Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has never in his 18-month probe called the former director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Kenneth Melson, to testify publicly about the botched operation conceived and executed by ATF agents under his supervision.
Melson has testified only in closed-door and secret hearings, where he told committee members that top Justice Department and White House officials had no knowledge of the flawed "gun-walking" tactics that allowed high-powered weapons to fall into the hands of drug cartels. His full remarks to Congress remain secret.
In a letter to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the Oversight committee, detailed "100 errors, omissions and mischaracterizations" in the contempt report that will be brought to a vote on Thursday. Among those omissions, Cummings said, was the failure to call Melson to testify publicly.
"It appears that the chairman is protecting ATF leaders from our inquiry and refusing to allow committee members to ask direct questions about these operations," Cummings said. He added that he had asked Issa "10 times" to call Melson before the committee.
A spokesperson for Issa's committee did not respond to repeated requests for comment. In an appearance on Fox News on Sunday, Issa said the contempt vote was simply an attempt to force the Obama administration to disclose crucial documents in the Fast and Furious investigation.
"We have an obligation to get to the truth about Fast and Furious," Issa said.
Under questioning, Issa denied that he refused to bring Melson before the committee. He also said he had no information that either the White House or Eric Holder authorized or knew about the controversial gun-walking tactics or participated in a cover-up.
The White House claimed executive privilege last week over a series of internal Justice Department documents from early 2011, after the Fast and Furious scandal had broken. On Feb. 4, 2011, the Justice Department sent a letter to Congress denying that gun-walking tactics were used in Fast and Furious -- a claim it later retracted. Issa's subpoena seeks emails and other documents from after Feb. 4, 2011, that explain how and why the misleading letter was sent.
The Obama administration's decision to withhold the documents brought the conflict over Fast and Furious to a boil, and Republicans are now set to charge Holder with contempt, in an unprecedented move.
But Democrats assert that Issa's probe has gone badly off track and failed to answer fundamental questions about the controversial gun-walking tactics, which appear to have originated with several ATF investigations during the George W. Bush administration. The committee has never called Bush appointee Michael Mukasey to testify, despite documents appearing to show he was briefed on gun-walking operations during his time as attorney general.
The majority has also failed to probe deeply into the ATF operations in Phoenix that were directly responsible for the controversial gun-walking tactics, according to Rep. Adam Schiff, (D-Calif.), a member of the Oversight panel.
"When there have been witnesses that will offer the greatest insight into the program, and how these guns got into the wrong hands, those witnesses have been of little or no interest to the committee," Schiff said in an interview. "If it doesn't fit the narrative, they don't want to hear it."
Caroline Maloney (D-N.Y.), also a member of the oversight committee, accused Issa of deliberately steering his investigation away from Bush-era programs.
"He has selectively led an investigation which has left out huge swaths of information," Maloney said in an interview. "It's a travesty."
On Wednesday, nothing appeared to stand in the way of the contempt vote. According to Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, White House and Justice Department staffers met with members of Issa's committee on Tuesday in a last-ditch attempt to reach a deal, but were rebuffed.
The looming contempt vote was "political gamesmanship," Carney said.
Legal experts said Thursday's contempt vote, though it appears likely to pass the Republican-dominated House, will do little to immediately force the Obama administration's hand on turning over the documents requested by Issa's committee. In the short term, the vote will likely have only symbolic consequences, although the use of executive privilege by Obama to shield documents related to Fast and Furious drew heavy press coverage, much of it critical.
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