It’s another George W. Bush administration program gone awry, and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is the Obama administration who is taking the flak.
Republicans on the House oversight committee voted on Wednesday to recommend holding Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt of Congress in a dispute over internal Justice Department documents related to the botched gun trafficking operation known as “Fast and Furious.”
Is the Obama administration hiding secrets, or is the House Oversight committee overstepping its authority? What is Operaton Fast and Furious?
Operation Fast and Furious was launched in 2009 by top DOJ officials, in collaboration with the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) as part of a strategy to identify and eliminate arms trafficking networks. Instead of prosecuting the individual “straw purchasers” who buy guns for the cartels, ATF agents would track the guns to the top bosses of Mexico’s powerful drug cartels.
As Democrats frequently point out, the “gun-walking” strategy was actually started by the Bush administration in 2006. But Fast and Furious was the biggest gun-walking operation that the DOJ had ever undertaken.
Between 2009 and 2011, ATF agents allowed more than 2,000 firearms to “walk” across the border. As many as 1,700 of those weapons have since been lost, and more than 100 have been found at bloody crime scenes on both sides of the border, including the murder of a U.S. Border Patrol agent in Arizona last December.
ATF whistle-blowers blew the lid off of Operation Fast and Furious shortly after the Border Patrol Agent’s death, prompting House Republicans to open up an investigation into who knew what about the gun-smuggling operation.
Whistleblower ATF Special Agent John Dodson’s story is here.
But this isn’t about whistleblowers and gunwalking. It’s about Darrell Issa and election year stunts.
In a Feb. 4, 2011 letter to Issa and Sen. Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Justice Department denied the existence of Operation Fast and Furious, writing that the “ATF makes every effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico.”
But evidence later emerged revealing that senior Justice Department officials knew about Operation Fast and Furious months before the letter was sent. In Dec. 2011, the DOJ acknowledged that the Feb. 11 letter was inaccurate, and turned over about 1,400 pages of documents to prove to Congress that it didn’t deliberately try to mislead Congress.
Holder also came under fire from Congress, after he told the Oversight Committee in May 2011 that he first heard of Fast and Furious “over the last few weeks.” But Congress later obtained internal DOJ memos related to the Operation that were addressed to Holder and dated from Sept. 2010.
Today’s contempt vote – and Obama’s executive privilege order – relates to internal DOJ documents from after the Feb. 4, 2011 letter to Congress.
In a letter to Holder this week, Issa explained that the House Oversight Committee needs those documents to “understand what the Department knew about Fast and Furious, including when and how it discovered its February 4 letter was false, and the Department’s efforts to conceal that information from Congress and the public.”
Furthermore, Holder was cooperating with the House Oversight committee before Issa pulled his stunt.
The attorney general attempted to stave off Wednesday’s vote by meeting late Tuesday with leaders of the House oversight and Senate Judiciary committees to strike a deal that would have Justice hand over requested documents in exchange for the House panel dropping its plans to vote on contempt charges. But Issa declined the offer.
Committee Democrats criticized Issa’s decision to move forward and blasted him for allowing the dispute to become a personal attack on Holder instead of a serious inquiry into Justice Department policy.
“We’ve been holding the attorney general to an impossible standard,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the panel’s ranking Democrat.
“You accused him of a ‘cover-up’ for protecting documents he was prohibited by law from producing. You claimed that he ‘obstructed’ the committee’s work by complying with federal statutes passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the president,” Cummings said. “And earlier this month, you went on national television and called the attorney general – our nation’s chief law enforcement officer – a liar.”
This is the first time the Obama administration has claimed executive privilege. That raises legitimate suspicions, that the Obama administration’s are suspect. But, it doesn’t exonerate Issa, who, according to John Nichols, had plenty of options, and Democratic support for a less divisive course of action.
The shame is on Issa. He knew full well that he was making a rare demand of an administration with which he has tangled before. He knows that to make such a demand, he needed to attract support from independent Democrats. He could have done so. But Issa chose instead to play purely partisan politics.
That’s damaging to the committee’s credibility.
That’s damaging to Congress.
That’s damaging to the Constitution, which establishes a system of checks and balances that is essential to the right functioning of the republic. If Issa respected Congress and the Constitution, he would have raised a credible challenge to the White House. Instead, he played politics. Badly.
When Americans are no longer watching Issa and his stunts, the real issue concerning gunwalking will be resolved.
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