Lawmaker Leading Probe: 'Someone Needs To Go' At Justice Over Fast And Furious

Feb 2, 2012
Originally published on February 2, 2012 4:36 pm

The Republican lawmaker who has been leading a yearlong investigation into the failed gun-trafficking operation known as Fast and Furious acknowledged Thursday that the probe has turned up no evidence that Attorney General Eric Holder approved the idea.

Yet Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said he believes "someone needs to go" at the Justice Department for an operation that lost track of more than 1,400 U.S. weapons along the Southwest border, and because he said the Justice Department sent lawmakers an inaccurate letter about the debacle.

Republicans on Issa's sharply divided committee also repeated threats to seek a contempt of Congress citation against Holder if Justice doesn't turn over more documents.

But Holder said sharing too much information could compromise ongoing cases, including the pursuit of those who killed U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry in December 2010. Holder predicted that the investigation into Terry's killing could result in more prosecutions this year.

In some ways, Holder's appearance Thursday before Issa's committee had a familiar ring — and not just because it was the sixth time in the past year that he's testified before Congress about the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives gun trafficking fiasco.

"The conclusion that I come to is there are some things in [undisclosed documents] that's being hidden that you don't want us to see," said Indiana Republican Dan Burton. "I don't know if it involves you or some other ATF agents or some other members of the Justice Department."

Burton's history of clashing with Holder over document sharing predates Fast and Furious, and goes back to the Clinton administration, when Holder was deputy attorney general.

On Thursday, House Democrats said there's no Fast and Furious cover-up — just an election-year circus.

Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., said committee investigators had turned up "not one witness, not one document, not one email" demonstrating that Justice Department officials had known about questionable tactics in the Fast and Furious operation.

"Did you, Mr. Attorney General, ever authorize gun-walking?" Towns asked Holder.

"I did not," Holder replied. "I'll say it that way. I'm from New York and I'd say it in a different way, but I'm going to have great respect for this committee and simply say, I did not."

Unlike the last time Holder faced off against Issa — when they traded references to the Nixon administration and to Sen. Joseph McCarthy's communist witch hunts of the 1950s — the tone was more or less respectful.

"Have you disciplined anyone from Fast and Furious?" Issa asked.

"No I have not," Holder said. "As yet, as yet."

Holder pointed to major management shakeups at ATF and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona, where most of the now-questioned decisions in the gun case appear to have been made.

That wasn't enough accountability for Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador.

He brought up Holder's involvement in a controversial pardon during the Clinton years, and accused Holder of failing to prepare for his congressional testimony.

"Mr. Attorney General, I believe the American people deserve better," Labrador said. "I believe the American people deserve to have an attorney general I can trust, and for that reason I have asked for your resignation."

Holder called the remarks among "the worst" he had ever heard in Congress.

"Maybe this is the way you do things in Idaho or wherever you're from," Holder said. "But understand something. I'm proud of the work I've done as attorney general of the United States, and looked at fairly, I think I've done a pretty good job."

Democrats on the committee said Holder's predecessors have something to answer for, too.

"Fast and Furious was not the first but the fourth investigation to use gun-walking as a tactic to go after bigger fish," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. "And the gun-walking strategy dates back to 2006, the prior administration."

Gun-walking refers to a law enforcement tactic of allowing guns to fall into the hands of low-level criminals, and tracking them along the way to try to catch major criminals.

Fast and Furious, though, involved a critical difference: The death of agent Terry. Two weapons linked to the botched operation were found near his body in December 2010.

Rep. Patrick McHenry , R-N.C., asked Holder when Terry's killers would finally face justice.

"It's 13 months after the fact, sir, that's what I'm saying. At what point are you going to take action?" McHenry asked.

"As soon as we are in a position to make arrests and hold people accountable, put them in a court of law and try them with maximum charges," Holder said, steps that he said are likely this year.

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Republicans in Congress have so far turned up no evidence that Attorney General Eric Holder approved a failed gun trafficking operation known as Fast and Furious. But on Capitol Hill today, a House committee ratcheted up the pressure on Holder.

BLOCK: It threatened to hold him in contempt if the Justice Department doesn't turn over more documents in its year-old investigation. Holder says that could compromise ongoing cases, including the pursuit of the men who killed a U.S. Border Patrol agent.

NPR's Carrie Johnson has our story.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Scheduling Eric Holder's latest appearance before the House Oversight Committee on Groundhog Day made a certain amount of sense. This is the sixth time he's testified about the gun trafficking fiasco run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in the last year. But if Holder's tired of appearing, Republicans on the committee are tired of being denied access to documents. Indiana Republican Dan Burton said he was reminded of clashes he had years ago with the Clinton administration.

REPRESENTATIVE DAN BURTON: The conclusion that I come to is there's some things in there that's being hidden that you don't want us to see. I don't know if it involves you or some other ATF agents or some other members of the Justice Department.

JOHNSON: But New York Democrat Edolphus Towns said nothing had emerged to show Holder approved a plan that would allow criminals access to guns as a kind of legal trap, a process known as gun walking.

REPRESENTATIVE EDOLPHUS TOWNS: Did you, Mr. Attorney General, ever authorize gun walking?

ERIC HOLDER: I did not. And I'll say it that way. I'm from New York, and I would say it in a different way. But I'm going to have great respect for this committee and simply say I did not.

JOHNSON: The attorney general has not always been so restrained. The last time he faced off against California Republican Darrell Issa, they traded references to the Nixon administration and the communist witch hunts of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Today, both men kept a more or less respectful tone.

REPRESENTATIVE DARRELL ISSA: Have you disciplined anyone from Fast and Furious?

HOLDER: No, I've not as yet - as yet.

JOHNSON: Holder said there had been big management shake ups at the ATF and at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona, where most of the bad decisions in the gun case appear to have been made. But that was not enough accountability for Raul Labrador, a Republican from Idaho. He brought up Holder's involvement in a controversial pardon during the Clinton years.

REPRESENTATIVE RAUL LABRADOR: Mr. Attorney General, I believe the American people deserve better. I believe that the American people deserve to have an attorney general that they can trust. And for that reason, I have asked for your resignation.

JOHNSON: Holder made it clear he has no such plans.

HOLDER: Maybe this is the way you do things from, you know, in Idaho or wherever you're from. But understand something. I'm proud of the work that I've done as attorney general of the United States. And looked at fairly, I think that I've done, you know, a pretty good job.

JOHNSON: Democrats on the committee pointed out that Holder's predecessors have something to answer for, too. New York's Carolyn Maloney.

REPRESENTATIVE CAROLYN MALONEY: Fast and Furious was not the first, but the fourth investigation to use gun walking as a tactic to go after bigger fish. And the gun walking strategy dates back to 2006, the prior administration.

JOHNSON: Fast and Furious, though, involved a critical difference, the death of U.S. border agent Brian Terry. Two weapons linked to the botched operation were found near his body in December 2010. North Carolina Republican Patrick McHenry asked Holder when Terry's killers would finally face justice.

REPRESENTATIVE PATRICK MCHENRY: It's 13 months after the fact, sir, that's what I'm saying. At what point are you going to take action?

HOLDER: As soon as we are in a position to make arrests and hold people accountable, put them in a court of law and try them with maximum charges.

MCHENRY: Is that likely this year?

HOLDER: I think that's likely this year.

JOHNSON: The intense interest in Fast and Furious in Congress may not end so soon.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.