White House defends Holder amid Fast and Furious accusations

The White House defended Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday in the face of a growing torrent of Republican criticism that he has not been truthful about his knowledge of a botched gun-tracking operation. 

White House press secretary Jay Carney said that Holder has been “consistent and truthful” about when he learned of the controversial tactics used in Operation Fast and Furious, which oversaw the sale of thousands of firearms to known and suspected straw buyers for Mexican drug cartels.

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“The president believes he’s an excellent attorney general and has great confidence in him, and we absolutely know that the testimony he gave was consistent and truthful,” Carney told reporters at a press briefing.

The staunch defense from the Obama administration comes as Republicans have unleashed a flood of concern over recently released internal Justice Department (DOJ) memos sent to Holder last year from senior agency officials clearly referring to the gun-tracking operation.

In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on May 3, Holder told Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) that Fast and the Furious had been staged without his knowledge.

“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,” Holder said at the time. Holder later said that he “probably” learned about the operation before Obama discussed it in a March 22 interview with Univision. 

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) launched Operation Fast and Furious in 2009 to try and track guns sold under its supervision to known and suspected straw purchasers for Mexican drug cartels. But the agency failed to equip the weapons with proper surveillance, causing them to disappear into the hands of criminals.

The process of letting the guns “walk” is taboo within the ATF, because it increases the risk of violence at the hands of the suspected criminals. Late last year, two guns sold under the operation were found at the murder scene of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.

The White House on Wednesday said that Holder’s response to Issa’s question, which was under sworn oath, was in reference to when he became aware of the controversial tactics employed by Operation Fast and Furious, and not when he first learned that the operation itself existed.

“He said in both March and May of this year that he became aware of the questionable tactics employed in the Fast and Furious operation in early 2011 when ATF agents first raised them publicly,” said Carney. “And he then asked the inspector general’s office to investigate the matter, demonstrating how seriously he took them.”

Republicans point to the memos as an indication that Holder may have misled and lied to Congress while under oath.

Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which is investigating who gave the ultimate authorization for the controversial gun-tracking operation, said the “only honorable thing” for Holder to do is resign — though he said he doubted he would.

“There are two options: He was lying or he was not doing his job, keeping up with what the Justice Department was doing,” Farenthold said in an interview on NRA News radio Tuesday night. “I would probably resign if that came out, if I had done that.”

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told Newsmax in an interview earlier this week that he had spoken to Issa, the chairman of the Oversight Committee, and had “no doubt” the members of the two committees investigating allegations would “get to the bottom of this program that has caused so much chaos.”

Following the release of the memos, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, called for Obama to appoint a special counsel to investigate Holder’s comments.

When pressed about whether Obama was planning to take up Smith’s call, Carney seemed to dismiss the request as “a regular occurrence” from Smith.

“There has been one call, and I think it’s the biannual call for a special counsel by this particular congressman,” said Carney. “Once every six months, we hear something similar.

“The attorney general’s testimony was consistent and truthful, and calls for special counsels, which seem to be a regular occurrence, do not change that fact.”

“There seems to be an epidemic of administration officials getting the facts wrong. In the past four years, I have made three requests — including the one yesterday — for a special counsel.  That’s not bi-annual.  And if the Obama administration would stop stonewalling and misleading Congress, I wouldn’t have to call for a special counsel,” he said in a statement to The Hill.

In July 2010, Smith called for Obama to appoint a special counsel to investigate why DOJ dropped its charges of voter intimidation against the Black Panther Party.

In May 2010, Smith joined fellow Republicans in calling for the FBI to investigate whether the Obama administration illegally offered a job to then-Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) in exchange for the lawmaker’s agreement not to challenge Sen. Arlen Specter’s (D-Pa.) bid for reelection. This was not a call for a special counsel investigation.

In October 2009, Smith requested a special prosecutor to investigate voter registration fraud within the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN).

Sam Youngman contributed to this article.

This story was updated at 9:50 p.m.