Fast and Furious fallout puts Holder on collision course with Congress

The fierce battle over a botched gun-tracking operation is intensifying and has put Attorney General Eric Holder on a collision course with his critics in Congress. 

Republicans are calling for his resignation in the wake of Fast and Furious, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives operation that may have inadvertently contributed to the death of at least one federal agent.

The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee has called for an independent investigation of Holder, and the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee wants to have Holder testify again before Congress. 

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Holder replied Friday to mounting accusations against him in a scathing letter to the congressional leaders who are investigating his involvement.

Holder wrote in a letter to the chairmen and ranking members of three Congressional committees that he has been "truthful and accurate" about the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms operation and that the rhetoric coming from Republican legislators has been "irresponsible and inflammatory."

The torrent of scrutiny comes after a series of internal Justice Department memos were released this week and show that Holder was informed about the existence of Operation Fast and Furious last year.

Holder testified in May before the House Judiciary Committee that he did not learn about the operation until earlier this year. Officials with the DOJ say Holder was referring to when he learned about the controversial tactics, known as “walking” guns into the hands of known and suspected criminals, that were employed by the operation.

"My testimony was truthful and accurate and I have been consistent on this point throughout," Holder wrote Friday night. "I have no recollection of knowing about Fast and Furious or of hearing its name prior to the public controversy about it."

President Obama has thrown his full support behind Holder, but the coming weeks will be the true test as Republicans put the administration under the microscope.

After receiving Holder's letter, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) promised the investigations would continue.

"The Attorney General’s denials of any personal knowledge will have to be tested against all the evidence as the investigation continues, just as the Department’s initial denials were," Beth Levine, a Grassley spokeswoman, said.

The following is a timeline of events surrounding Holder and Congress’ dealings with Operation Fast and Furious:

2009 Operation Fast and Furious is launched under the supervision of the ATF's Group VII, based out of Phoenix.

March 12, 2010 — Group VII Supervisor David Roth sends an email to the group acknowledging a “schism” in the attitudes of the agents. ATF agents in the group would later testify they were conflicted over the tactics being used. “Whether you care or not people of rank and authority at HQ are paying close attention to this case,” wrote Roth.

July 2010 — Michael Walther, the director of the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC), wrote three memos to Holder in which he mentions Operation Fast and Furious. In one memo, Walther advises Holder that NDIC and a Phoenix drug enforcement task force would assist the ATF with an investigation of a suspected gun trafficker, Manuel Celis-Acosta, being run under Operation Fast and Furious.

“This investigation, initiated in September 2009 in conjunction with the Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Phoenix police department, involves a Phoenix-based firearms trafficking ring Manuel Celis-Acosta,” the memo states. “Celis-Acosta and [redacted] straw purchasers are responsible for the purchase of 1,500 firearms that were then supplied to Mexican drug trafficking cartels.” 

Nov. 2010 — Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer sent a weekly memo to Holder notifying him of a sealed indictment against alleged gun traffickers in Arizona by the DOJ’s organized crime and gang section. Breuer wrote that the indictment would remain sealed “until another investigation, Phoenix-based ‘Operation Fast and Furious,’ is ready for takedown.”

Nov. – Dec. 2010 — Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is contacted by whistleblowers within ATF about the tactics used in Operation Fast and Furious.

Dec. 15, 2010 — Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry is killed in a firefight in Arizona. Two of the guns found at the scene were sold to suspected straw buyers under the operation.

Jan. 2011 — Grassley meets with Holder and DOJ officials to discuss the whistleblower allegations. 

Feb. 2011 — DOJ sends a letter to Grassley denying that the ATF would knowingly sell assault weapons to straw purchasers and that the agency makes every effort to prevent weapons from going to Mexico.

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March 2011 — Holder asks the DOJ’s Inspector General to investigate Operation Fast and Furious.

March 8, 2011 — Eleven people are federally indicted for alleged weapons trafficking crimes in connection with Fast and Furious.

March 16, 2011 — Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) sends his first letter to ATF’s acting-director Kenneth Melson requesting documents pertaining to the origin of Fast and Furious and who authorized it.

March 31, 2011 — Issa issues first subpoena on Fast and Furious to DOJ for documents he requested in March.

May 3, 2011 — Holder testifies before the House Judiciary Committee saying, “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.”

June 15, 2011 — Issa holds his first hearing on Fast and Furious where former and current ATF agents testified about the controversial tactics employed under the operation and their efforts to stop them. Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich, who operates as a legislative liaison to Congress, also testifies that the DOJ was doing everything in its power to assist Issa with his investigation. Republicans have said the DOJ is “stonewalling” their efforts to get information about the operation.

June 29, 2011 — Obama says he will not comment on Fast and Furious further until the IG investigation is complete. “My attorney general has made clear that he certainly would not have ordered gun running to be able to pass through into Mexico,” said Obama. “I'm not going to comment on a current investigation. I've made very clear my views that that would not be an appropriate step by the ATF, and we've got to find out how that happened.”

July 4, 2011 — Melson testifies in a closed setting before Issa and Grassley’s investigators. Melson acknowledges that Fast and Furious was under the jurisdiction of the Arizona U.S. Attorney’s office.

August 30, 2011 — Holder transfers Melson out of his position as acting director and Arizona U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke resigns.