Holder has hit new low, Issa charges

Rep. Darrell Issa rebuked Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday for his role in a botched gun-tracking operation under investigation by his congressional panel.

Issa (R-Calif.) said the attorney general’s most recent defense had “reached a new low,” and accused Holder and the Justice Department (DOJ) of trying to derail his investigation into “Operation Fast and Furious” by offering “a roving set of ever-changing explanations to justify its involvement in this reckless and deadly program.”

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“All of these efforts were designed to circle the wagons around DOJ and its political appointees,” Issa, the chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, wrote in scathing reply Sunday to a Friday letter from Holder in which the attorney general defended himself.

The fight over Operation Fast and Furious is a growing political problem for the Obama administration, which has seen new calls for Holder to resign.

Under the program, guns were sold to straw purchasers for Mexican drug cartels. The idea was to trace guns found at subsequent raids and crime scenes back to the firearms sold under the supervision of the operation, in hopes of dismantling the trafficking routes used by Mexican drug cartels. But to make cases against the cartels, thousands of guns were released onto the streets — and the program might have contributed to the death of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.

Holder has said he only recently learned of the program, but Issa pointed to detailed correspondence that he said suggests two senior Justice Department (DOJ) officials knew of the controversial methods used under Operation Fast and Furious.

Issa offered two instances in which DOJ’s former acting deputy director, Gary Grindler — who now serves as Holder’s chief of staff — and the assistant attorney general for DOJ’s criminal division, Lanny Breuer, were made aware of the gun “walking” methods.

He then suggested that either Holder was told about the tactics, and had lied to Congress; or he was not told about the tactics, and is running his agency incompetently.

“Incredibly, in your letter from Friday you now claim that you were unaware of Fast and Furious because your staff failed to inform you of information contained in memos that were specifically addressed to you,” Issa wrote in his letter, sent to Holder on Sunday but publicly released on Monday.

“At best, this indicates negligence and incompetence in your duties as attorney general. At worst, it places your credibility in serious doubt.”

Issa, who wants Holder to testify again to Congress on the issue, wrote that Holder’s letter “did little but obfuscate, shift blame, berate and attempt to change the topic away from the department’s responsibility in the creation, implementation and authorization” of Fast and Furious.

He said Holder’s letter called into question his ability to serve the American people as attorney general.

“It appears your latest defense has reached a new low,” he wrote. 

The letter follows Issa’s weekend announcement that he will subpoena Justice for new documents related to department officials' involvement in authorizing the operation, which was launched by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in 2009.

Holder wrote to congressional leaders after enduring a fusillade of criticism last week from Republicans — including calls for his resignation, accusations that he was trying to devise a cover-up and a statement that he was an accessory to murder. Holder wrote that the most recent congressional reaction to the controversy was “irresponsible.” 

“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,’ ” wrote Holder.

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“Such irresponsible and inflammatory rhetoric must be repudiated in the strongest possible terms.”

Internal DOJ memos released last week show that Holder was notified of the existence of the operation as early as last year. Holder testified in May before the House Judiciary Committee that he did not know about the operation until recently. The White House and DOJ said Holder’s testimony was “truthful and accurate” and that the attorney general was referencing the time period when he was made aware of the controversial tactics used in the operation.

Soon after congressional lawmakers, led by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), raised the issue with Holder in letters requesting documents about the operation earlier this year, he called on the DOJ’s inspector general to launch an investigation into the matter, which it is in the process of completing.

In Sunday’s letter, Issa pointed to Grindler, Holder’s chief of staff and the former acting deputy attorney general, in arguing that senior DOJ officials knew about Fast and Furious and the tactics it employed as early as last year.

In March 2010, Grindler was made aware of the operation’s gun sales to a suspected straw buyer who lived on food stamps, according to Issa’s letter. The buyer paid for more than 700 guns with cash, and Grindler did nothing to stop the operation, said Issa.

Issa said that Grindler either told Holder about the operation and its tactics, or he did not. If he did tell Holder, then the attorney general was not being truthful when he told Congress that he was only made recently aware of the operation. If Grindler did not tell Holder, then it would be considered a “dereliction of his duties.”

Issa concludes that Grindler must have told Holder because he was not fired for “dereliction” and was instead given his current job as Holder’s chief of staff.