By Jordy Yager - 02/02/12 10:25 AM EST
Republicans will confront Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday morning for his role in the botched Fast and Furious gun-tracking operation.
The hearing is expected to be testy following House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa’s (R-Calif.) threat to hold the attorney general in contempt if he does not hand over documents requested under a panel subpoena.
In the testimony, Holder denounces Operation Fast and Furious, saying the tactics used in the failed operation were “neither acceptable nor excusable.”
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) authorized the program in 2009 to try to trace weapons from the United States to Mexican drug cartels. Guns were sold to known and suspected straw purchasers for the cartels, but ATF agents were often told to abandon their surveillance of the weapons, allowing them — and the straw buyers — to disappear, according to House testimony from numerous agents.
The only remaining hope for agents to track the guns was if other agencies found them at crime scenes or during drug raids and identified them by their serial numbers.
Authorities discovered two such weapons, sold under the operation, at the Arizona murder scene of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry. According to testimony, agents in the region are terrified that some of the thousands of guns still at large will be used to kill more innocent people.
In his testimony, Holder will point to actions he has taken to ensure that an operation like Fast and Furious never happens again. These changes include “implementing a new Monitored Case Program designed to facilitate closer coordination on sensitive investigations between ATF field and headquarters personnel.”
Holder’s handling of the issue has become a political flashpoint, with more than 90 GOP lawmakers — including more than half of the committee’s Republicans — signing on to Rep. Paul Gosar’s (R-Ariz.) resolution expressing no confidence in Holder and asking him to resign.
If Holder is not forthcoming with information on Thursday or documents by Feb. 9, Gosar’s office said he will push more aggressively for a vote on the resolution, which is before the House Judiciary Committee.
Issa’s investigation has largely centered on what role, if any, Holder played in the operation.
Both Holder and President Obama have repeatedly denied knowing or approving of the operation before press reports of the controversial tactics used began to surface early last year, after which Holder ordered an inspector general investigation. The Obama administration has also pointed to a similar program run by the Bush administration.
Issa has said that either Holder knew about the operation and has lied to Congress, or that he should have known about the operation and is incompetent to hold his office.
Much of Thursday’s hearing is expected to revolve around Issa’s demand for all Justice Department documents related to a Feb. 4, 2011, letter on Fast and Furious the agency sent to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).
In that letter, Justice said it did everything in its power to stop guns from being trafficked across the U.S.-Mexico border, but subsequent testimony and documents showed these claims were false, and Justice has since withdrawn the letter.
In his testimony, Holder emphasized the hundreds of hours of staff work, thousands of pages of documents and six congressional appearances by himself that have gone into attempts to address congressional concerns about the operation.
Holder said that all questions surrounding the origins of the falsehoods in the Feb. 4 letter to Grassley have been answered and implied that he would not be handing over any further documents to Issa on the matter.
“The documents we produced have answered the question of how that letter came to be drafted and put to rest questions about any intentional effort to mislead,” he said.
Issa threatened to hold Holder in contempt after the attorney general, in December testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, said Justice would not provide any documents created after Feb. 4, 2011, to Congress. Holder did say Justice would release a score of documents concerning the letter that were created prior to Feb. 4.
Democrats on Issa’s committee issued an 89-page report early this week placing much of the blame for the failings of the operation, including the heavily shunned tactics of gun “walking,” on field agents in Arizona, and not on administration officials.
But Republicans balked at the report, which they said was politically motivated. “The idea that senior political appointees have clean hands in these gun-walking scandals doesn’t pass the laugh test,” Grassley said.
“It will take a lot more than a knee-jerk defense from their political allies in Congress to restore public trust in the leadership of the Justice Department.”