A House oversight committee chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., issued a subpoena Wednesday demanding that Attorney General Eric Holder testify about a botched gun sting along the Mexican border. The committee is trying to get to the bottom of "Fast and Furious," a scandal-plagued operation involving the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives ("ATF") that allowed at least 2,000 high-powered guns to be sold illegally to couriers who delivered the guns to drug cartels. No effort was made to keep track of the guns or intercept them before they fell into the wrong hands. Some of the guns have turned up at crime scenes, including the murder of a U.S. Border Agent.
The congressional investigation originally focused on who approved the poorly conceived operation. But now the attention is also turning to an additional question: did Eric Holder, the nation's top law enforcement officer, commit perjury?
In May 2011, Holder testified, "I'm not sure of the exact date, but I probably heard about Fast and Furious for the first time over the last few weeks." Newly uncovered Justice Department documents, however, reveal that Holder received memos referring to Fast and Furious in July 2010, almost a year earlier.
This week, Holder downplayed the memos. "I have no recollection of knowing about Fast and Furious or of hearing its name prior to the public controversy about it," Holder insisted in a letter to Issa and other congressional leaders. "Prior to early 2011, I certainly never knew about the tactics employed in the operation," namely that guns were allowed to "walk" -- law enforcement lingo for contraband allowed to be delivered to criminals without any further tracking.
Yet the memos appear to contradict Holder's explanation. A memo to Holder from Michael Walter, the Director of the National Drug Intelligence Center dated July 5, 2010, clearly states that "Operation Fast and the Furious" involved a "firearms trafficking ring... responsible for the purchase of 1,500 firearms that were then supplied to the Mexican drug trafficking cartels." The memo doesn't say the guns were sold to couriers, but "supplied" to the cartels.
Perjury is a serious offense and Holder could be indicted if prosecutors determine he knowingly gave false answers to a congressional committee. Holder has one thing going for him: as the Attorney General, he's in charge of the prosecutors. That's why Issa and other Republicans have called for the appointment of a special, independent counsel to look into Fast and Furious and Holder's role in it.
Holder's denials come against a backdrop of prior accusations of a cover-up. Kenneth Melson, the acting director of ATF told a congressional committee in July that Justice Department officials had instructed him not to cooperate with Congress. He also said Justice was concealing an internal "smoking gun" memorandum on the scandal in order to protect "political appointees." Holder is, of course, the Department's top political appointee.
In recognition of the damaging nature of these memos, Holder offered another defense: he never read the memos. "On a weekly basis, my office typically receives over a hundred pages of so-called 'weekly reports' that, while addressed to me, actually are provided to and reviewed by members of my staff and the staff of the Office of the Deputy Attorney General," he stated in his letter to Issa.
If this is true, it is almost as troubling as Holder's apparently misleading testimony. Ever since the administration of George W. Bush, who began the larger gun sting operation known as "Project Gunrunner," of which Fast and Furious was just one part, the operation has been rife with mismanagement and controversy. In 2006, ATF lost track of approximately 450 guns. And in November 2010, the Office of the Inspector General for the Justice Department issued a scathing report criticizing ATF for poor coordination and failure to share information both internally and with other agencies involved.
If he didn't commit perjury, Holder is nevertheless guilty of remarkable incompetence for his failure to oversee such a sensitive operation as selling guns to violent drug cartels.
Perhaps the administration was just hoping the Fast and Furious controversy would die out. It won't. The Republicans in Congress have set their sights on Holder in what is likely to turn out to be the first major scandal of the Obama administration. With an election coming up and Obama's opposition eager to expose any wrongdoing by this administration, you can be sure we'll hear much more about Fast and Furious in the coming months.