Holder pushes back against GOP lawmakers over Fast and Furious

Attorney General Eric Holder is trying to get in front of the Fast and Furious controversy that has led to calls from conservatives for his resignation.

Holder has shed the low-key persona that sought to quietly deflect a torrent of mounting congressional criticism over his role in a botched gun tracking operation.

In its place, President Obama’s top law enforcement official has embraced a new strategy, actively confronting and rebuffing the serious concerns and disparaging remarks emanating from Capitol Hill while admitting mistakes made by his department, promising to hold officials accountable, and vehemently seeking to tell his side of the story. 

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For months Obama and his attorney general pointed to the ongoing inspector general (IG) investigation that Holder requested, saying that the unfolding information about Operation Fast and Furious was troubling, but keeping their comments to a minimum after top-ranking Republicans launched a congressional investigation into the quagmire at the beginning of the year.

But amid dozens of calls for his resignation and a series of heated comments —one Republican implied that he’s an accessory to murder — Holder has stepped up his approach.

“I'd like to correct some of the inaccurate, and frankly, irresponsible accusations surrounding Fast and Furious,” Holder announced at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this week.

The hearing was Holder’s first before the committee since internal DOJ memos raised questions about whether he misled the House Judiciary Committee in May when he testified that he had first learned about Fast and Furious “over the last few weeks.”

The memos launched a spate of Republican calls for his resignation as lawmakers debated whether Holder lied to Congress under oath and questioned whether he was fit to hold office.

At Tuesday’s hearing Holder immediately clarified his remarks from his House testimony in May, saying that he first learned about Fast and Furious and its gun-walking tactics after news reports emerged based on the concerns of whistleblowers. He said he immediately asked for an IG investigation.

“In my testimony before the House committee, I did say ‘a few weeks,’” said Holder. “I probably could have said ‘a couple of months.’ I don’t think that what I said in terms of using the term ‘a few weeks’ was inaccurate, based on what happened.”

In a push to get out ahead of the news coverage that would follow the Senate hearing, DOJ officials released excerpts of Holder’s testimony the night before. In his remarks Holder admitted that Fast and Furious “was flawed in concept, as well as in execution…and it must never happen again.”

Holder’s remorseful sentiment, combined with his promise — under oath — that he would hold accountable those involved in Fast and Furious’ poor decision making once the IG investigation is completed, dominated much of the news coverage.

One sticking point emerged when Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) pressed Holder on a letter that assistant attorney general for legislative affairs Ronald Weich had written earlier that year, telling Grassley that the ATF made every effort to intercept guns traveling to Mexico.

Holder directly sought to assuage Grassley’s concern, telling him that he regrets that the DOJ officials who wrote that letter to Grassley used inaccurate information. But the attorney general stressed that officials believed the information to be true at the time, saying they did not intentionally mislead Congress.

Under Operation Fast and Furious, the ATF oversaw the sale of thousands of guns to known and suspected straw buyers for Mexican drug cartels. Many of those firearms are believed to be in Mexico. Two of the guns were found at the murder scene of Border Patrol Brian Terry last December.

Republicans were left unsatisfied with Holder’s testimony, however. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, immediately fired off a letter to Weich questioning whether he lied to Congress in his letter to Grassley. 

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told Fox that Holder failed to “acquit himself” and criticized the attorney general for not holding anyone accountable.

Tuesday’s Senate hearing was the first instance of Holder publicly promising to hold officials responsible. But in August Holder quietly reassigned the head of the

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Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) Kenneth Melson and his deputy William Hoover, who oversaw the Arizona-based group in charge of Fast and Furious.

Holder offered no public statements at the time linking their reassignment to the roles they played in the operation.

Shortly after the internal shifts, Republicans stepped up the heat on Holder, with the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee asking Obama to appoint a special prosecutor to look into Holder’s role in Fast and Furious.

The growing chorus spurred Holder’s shift from passive to proactive, which was evidenced by his testimony this week. Last month he blasted the heightening attacks on himself and the DOJ in a letter to the chairman and ranking members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the House and Senate Judiciary Committees.

“The public discourse concerning these issues has become so base and so harmful to interests that I hope we all share that I must now address these issues notwithstanding the Inspector General’s ongoing review,” wrote Holder. 

“I cannot sit idly by as a majority member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform suggests, as happened this week, that law enforcement and government employees who devote their lives to protecting our citizens be considered ‘accessories to murder.’ Such irresponsible and inflammatory rhetoric must be repudiated in the strongest possible terms.”

Holder is scheduled to appear before the House Judiciary Committee next month and will face a barrage of questions from Issa and other Republicans closely tracking the issue. But with only one Democrat from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee sitting on the panel, the attorney general will largely have to fend for himself – a role he has embraced with vigor.