Contrary to testimony before Congress, high-ranking Department of Justice officials knew of the "gun-walking" tactics in "Operation Fast and Furious," Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) charged Tuesday, pointing to DOJ wiretap approvals as evidence.
Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, called on DOJ to hold several high-ranking agency officials accountable in light of the new evidence.
The committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), however, said Issa was mischaracterizing the nature of the wiretap authorizations, and DOJ responded by questioning how Issa obtained materials that were under seal by a federal court.
Issa said he recently reviewed six wiretap applications approved by top DOJ officials indicating that they knew about, and should be held responsible for, not stopping the most controversial aspect of the botched gun-tracking operation.
In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday, Issa stated that a “remarkable” and “immense” amount of detail was contained within the applications about the tactics of “gun-walking” — letting guns go into the hands of known or suspected criminals — that were used in Fast and Furious.
In the controversial program, agents from the Bureau of the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which is under DOJ, sold firearms to known and suspected straw purchasers for Mexican drug cartels, but lost track of many of the weapons. Some of those guns might have contributed to the December 2010 shooting death of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.
Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jason Weinstein, and Deputy Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Blanco were responsible for authorizing the 2010 wiretaps, according to Issa, who did not make copies of the authorizations public because of their sensitive nature.
“The applications discussed — in no uncertain terms — the reckless tactic used in Operation Fast and Furious,” Issa wrote. “In light of the information contained in these wiretap applications, senior Department officials can no longer disclaim responsibility for failing to shut down Fast and Furious because they were unaware of the tactics used.”
Cummings balked at Issa’s assertions, calling them unfounded. In a 10-page letter responding to Issa, Cummings said that these top-ranking DOJ officials did not personally review any of the six wiretap applications.
Instead, as has been standard practice across multiple administrations, deputy assistant attorneys general reviewed summaries of the wiretap applications as prepared by attorneys in the Office of Enforcement Operations, according to Cummings.
In testimony before Congress and in letters to lawmakers, the DOJ has maintained that it has no evidence indicating senior agency officials knew about or approved the “gun-walking” tactics used in Fast and Furious.
Cummings's letter cited sworn testimony before the committee of Weinstein, in which he explained the wiretap review process. He had only reviewed a summary of the wiretap applications and said that he did not know at any time that guns were being walked in Fast and Furious.
At the request of Holder, the DOJ’s inspector general for more than a year has been conducting its own investigation of the failed operation and who was responsible. Holder and President Obama have said they are awaiting the IG report before holding agency personnel responsible, if necessary.
Issa said that the information in the wiretaps was evidence enough to take action against the top-ranking DOJ officials.
“With the wiretap applications in possession of the committee, the Department can no longer push such information away from its political appointees,” Issa wrote. “These appointees were responsible for approving the reckless tactics used during Fast and Furious.”
“It is time for you to honor your commitment to Congress and the American people by holding these individuals accountable,” Issa said.
The DOJ responded to Issa on Tuesday, saying that it was not allowed by law to talk about the details of the wiretaps under question because they were sealed by a federal court, which raised serious concerns as to how the committee came to be in possession of them.
“Chairman Issa’s letter makes clear that sealed court documents relating to pending federal prosecutions being handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California have been disclosed to the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in violation of law,” said Deputy Attorney General James Cole in a letter.
“This is of great concern to us. While we are legally prohibited from commenting on the content of sealed court documents, we disagree with the chairman’s assertions,” Cole said.
The committee has not revealed how they were able to obtain the wiretap applications.
Cummings called on Issa to meet with current and former DOJ officials, including former Attorney General Michael Mukasey under former President George W. Bush, to develop a bipartisan review and reform of the wiretap application review process.
Issa has been investigating Fast and Furious for 15 months in an attempt to uncover who in the DOJ knew about the operation, and has made repeated claims that high-ranking agency officials approved the tactics used.
Last month Issa began circulating to members a draft copy of a resolution that would place Holder in contempt of Congress for not turning over a cache of documents that he subpoenaed late last year.
—Updated at 3:35 p.m. and 4:15 p.m.