Attorney General Eric Holder is facing heated questioning for the government's role in a gun-smuggling program called Fast and Furious, which some argue is related to a U.S. border agent's death. NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports from Capitol Hill.
WASHINGTON - Attorney General Eric Holder squared off Thursday with Republicans on a House committee who are demanding that the Justice Department turn over documents about its handling of congressional inquiries into a flawed gun-smuggling investigation known as Operation Fast and Furious.
At the start of a hearing, chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will do what is necessary to force the Justice Department to produce the information.
The attorney general said he will consider Issa's demand.
"I think you're hiding behind something here," Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., told Holder. "You ought to give us the documents. ... It appears we're being stonewalled."
Burton, a former chairman of the committee, said he would urge Issa to seek a contempt of Congress citation if the Justice Department does not produce the congressionally subpoenaed documents.
Issa has already threatened to seek a contempt ruling against Holder for failing to turn over the documents. The lawmaker alleges the Justice Department is engaging in a cover-up.
Before the hearing started, Issa introduced Holder to federal agent John Dodson, one of the whistleblowers in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who first told Congress a year ago about the use of a tactic known as gun-walking in the Phoenix-based Fast and Furious investigation.
The tactic involves allowing suspected "straw buyers" of weapons to walk away from gun stores with their illicit purchases, rather than arresting them there. Instead, agents tried to track the low-level buyers and the guns to smuggling ringleaders and financiers, including Mexican drug gang leaders, who have long eluded prosecution for their role in the flow of guns into Mexico.
ATF's Phoenix division has tried this tactic, with minor variations, in at least four investigations beginning in 2006 during the George W. Bush administration. It began three such probes, including one called "Wide Receiver," under Bush before launching Fast and Furious under Obama. All of the probes encountered problems.
Problems recognized after agent's death
In Fast and Furious, which ran from 2009 until early 2011, agents lost track of nearly 1,400 of the more than 2,000 guns purchased by suspected straw buyers. Some 700 guns connected to suspects in the operation have been recovered in Mexico and the U.S., some at crime scenes, including the one near Nogales, Ariz., where border agent Brian Terry was murdered in December 2010. A month after Terry's death, Congress began hearing of problems with the probe.
Issa, who issued a memorandum detailing the operations before Terry was killed, and other Republicans on the panel said Thursday at the hearing that senior Justice Department officials should have also known that guns were trafficked without surveillance from wiretap applications and details about "Wide Receiver."
"All of those people should be ashamed that Brian Terry is dead because they didn't do as good of a job as they should," Issa said during the hearing.
Lawmakers want to know "how you'll ensure for the American people that this will not happen again," he said.
Holder has said he and other senior Justice Department officials and its ATF were left in the dark about Fast and Furious until the controversy erupted.
"It's unacceptable, it's stupid, it's dangerous, and not something that this Department of Justice can ever do," Holder told the panel Thursday about the tactics.
He said two senior aides who knew that guns were allowed to be trafficked during the Bush administration regretted not making the connection to "Fast and Furious".
Holder raised questions about whether the wiretap applications did in fact discuss the tactics and said talking about those documents publicly could violate court orders.
Holder said he expected to hold people accountable in a court of law, with maximum criminal charges, for Terry's murder within six months and possibly by the end of March. He also said whoever authorized the tactics would likely be fired.
Republicans expressed frustration that it was taking so long for disciplinary action.
"You told people that you were mad, you were upset. That to me is silly. You've not taken action, you've not fired anybody," said Representative Patrick McHenry of North Carolina.
Holder said he had moved ATF personnel around and barred the use of gun walking. Further action against those responsible would have to wait for the Justice Department's inspector general to finish her investigation and report, he said.
"To the extent that we find out who precisely was involved in this or who gave that order, I can assure you that unless there is some truly compelling circumstance, that person, those people, will be removed from federal service," Holder said.
On Wednesday, Deputy Attorney General James Cole said the department will provide documents created after Feb. 4, 2011, the day the department gave incorrect information to Congress about Fast and Furious.
Cole said the department had made an exception to longstanding policy in order to provide material on how the erroneous Feb. 4 letter was created, but he said other documents about the congressional inquiries on Fast and Furious would not be turned over.
Holder said Thursday that prior administrations have recognized that robust internal communications would be chilled, and the executive branch's ability to respond to such requests impeded, if internal communications concerning responses to congressional oversight were disclosed to Congress.
Memo details concerns
Issa's memo questioned why federal agents allowed the probe to go on for over a year.
Intercepts from a Drug Enforcement Administration wiretap on one of the suspects provided probable cause for federal agents to make arrests, or at the very least supplied the basis to seize the weapons, the Republican staff memo said. The memo said the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives did not act on this information.
Agents could have arrested one of the suspects in December 2009 and used his arrest to work their way up the ladder to the two cartel associates, the staff memo said.
"Instead, ATF wanted to get its own federal wiretaps and create its own big case," said the GOP memo. "This decision ensured that Fast and Furious lasted nearly a year longer, with 1,500 more guns being purchased — including the guns bought by another of the suspects in January 2010" found at the Terry murder scene.
Democrats on the committee have pointed out that agents in the case testified that stronger US laws are needed against straw buyers, because cases get thrown out of court, or prison sentences are too short, to persuade the low-level buyers to turn on their bosses.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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