By Jordy Yager - 06/16/11 12:55 AM EDT
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) on Wednesday escalated his standoff with the Department of Justice over a gun-tracking program that might have contributed to the death of federal agent.
As the family of slain ATF agent Brian Terry pleaded for justice, Issa said officials should be "ashamed" for handing over heavily redacted documents about the program.
The lawmakers have doggedly pursued the Justice Department (DOJ) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) for documents in the case. Both have accused the DOJ of “stonewalling” their efforts.
In April, Issa subpoenaed the DOJ for thousands of documents related to the operation, including email correspondence and departmental records. But according to committee aides, the DOJ has only given the committee documents that are publicly available or heavily redacted.
After more than two months of back-and-forth between DOJ officials and Issa’s staff, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich told lawmakers that the department was cooperating and actively working to respond to the committee’s request.
Outraged, Issa held up a piece of white paper with a giant black box of entirely redacted text on it.
“You should be ashamed of yourself,” Issa said to Weich. “It doesn’t take so long if you don’t spend your life redacting it.
“The pages go on like this forever,” he said, referencing the blackened piece of paper. “You’ve given us black paper instead of white paper. You might as well have given us a ream still in its original binder. How dare you make an opening statement of cooperation.”
Weich’s response was restrained as he repeated variations of the department’s expressed desire to work with the committee in a cooperative manner to meet its request.
If the committee continues not to receive the requested documents, Issa can move to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt.
In emotional testimony, Terry’s family pleaded with the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to punish everyone involved in his killing.
No conclusions were reached during the hearing as to who might have authorized the program. Both President Obama and Holder have denied ordering it. When news of the operation became public, Holder immediately asked the inspector general to conduct an investigation.
Weich, who operates as a legislative liaison to Congress, has written Issa and Grassley in previous months with the agency’s concern that the committee’s investigation could jeopardize the DOJ’s prosecution of suspects rounded up through the operation. Earlier this year, Issa and Grassley made public a wiretap that was under a federal seal, and the DOJ says it does not want to risk similar leaks.
One letter of Weich’s to Grassley came under particular fire on Wednesday. In the letter, Weich said the ATF had not “knowingly allowed the sale of assault weapons to a straw purchaser” and that the agency makes “every effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation into Mexico.”
Issa leaked a series of three emails to the press during Wednesday’s hearing, however, that seem to contradict this statement and imply that acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson knew of the operation since March of 2010.
In one of the emails, under the subject heading “Director’s questions,” the supervisor of the Fast and Furious operation wrote to the assistant special agent in charge of Phoenix field operations with an Internet protocol address for one of the video monitoring units in a gun store authorized to sell guns to the suspects.
“With this information, acting Director Melson was able to sit at his desk in Washington and — himself — watch a live feed of the straw buyers entering the gun stores to purchase dozens of AK-47 variants,” said a Republican committee statement.
During the hearing, lawmakers heard a litany of allegations from ATF agents that the gun-tracking operation has endangered lives.
Three ATF agents who testified said they had never seen a law enforcement operation planned with so little forethought. The aim of the Arizona-based operation was to monitor the sale of firearms to known and suspected straw purchasers in an attempt to expose gun trafficking routes by tracking those weapons to members of Mexican drug cartels across the border.
But the surveillance tools and authority given to the agents were extremely limited, they said. Without tracking devices in the guns, the agents were forced to rely on visual surveillance, which was frequently terminated by their commanding officers, in part because they lacked sufficient manpower to monitor all of the weapons being “walked” out of the gun stores.
The only way the agents could successfully track the straw purchaser to more powerful members of a gun trafficking enterprise was if the gun was ultimately recovered at a crime scene and they could confirm its serial number, said Special Agent John Dodson, who was part of the operation until he brought it to the attention of Grassley’s staff.
“There was not a time when we were out there on surveillance where we didn’t have the forethought that these were going to be recovered in crimes,” said Dodson.
“What we were ordered to do every day was watch the same guys buy the same guns from the same dealers, who we told to make the sales, and then we’d sit back and wait for the traces, and when they came through from places in Mexico where it was definitively related to cartels, they were giddy.”
At the end of the hearing, Issa and ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) proposed a compromise to Weich in which the committee would gain full in-camera access to the requested documents, which would narrow the risk of any possible leaks. Weich said he was not authorized to make such a deal but remained hopeful that they could reach an agreement.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) refrained from commenting on whether contempt proceedings were warranted at this point, but said the stakes had been raised.
“I haven’t been in Congress very long, but this is the most serious investigation I’ve ever seen,” said Chaffetz in an interview. “If the administration had hoped to diminish our desire to get at these documents, that didn’t happen. If nothing else, this has escalated it to another level.”