Holder, on hot seat, grapples with Issa, committee over Fast and Furious

Attorney General Eric Holder was stunned by a question from Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (R-N.Y.) at a Thursday hearing.

“How many more Border Patrol agents would have had to die as part of Operation Fast and Furious for you to take responsibility?” she asked, referring to Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, whose death has been linked to weapons lost by the controversial program.

“That kind of question I think is frankly, and again respectfully, and I think — is beneath a member of Congress,” Holder replied.

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At another point in the more than four-hour grilling Holder received from Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) used a slideshow of quotations from Holder from 2001 responding to congressional questions about his role in the pardoning of tax evader Marc Rich during the Clinton administration.

Holder had said 11 years ago that he was unfamiliar with certain documents in the Rich matter. Labrador said that indicated a “pattern” of Holder’s incompetence with reading important documents.  

The attorney general said Labrador’s presentation was “among the worst things I think I’ve ever seen in Congress.”

Holder was at the center of political sniping and flaring tempers, as GOP lawmakers on the committee headed by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) sought answers to what went wrong with the gun-tracking effort known as Operation Fast and Furious.

Fast and Furious was an operation started in 2009 that oversaw the sale of nearly 2,000 firearms in the Southwest in the hope of tracking them to crimes in Mexico and dismantling the trafficking routes. Agents were directed not to immediately intercept the weapons and weren’t given means to adequately track them, a tactic known as gun “walking.” As a result, the majority of the guns disappeared.

Two of those weapons were discovered at the murder scene of Terry in Arizona about 13 months ago.

Holder sought to assuage lawmakers on Thursday, saying that he plans to hold federal officials responsible for the decisions that led to the failed operation, and that Justice was getting very close to arresting and prosecuting Terry’s alleged killers.

Much of the Fast and Furious investigation has devolved into political bickering.

As Democrats repeatedly blasted committee Republicans for conducting a “witch-hunt,” Issa and colleagues attempted to point out inconsistencies within thousands of subpoenaed Justice Department documents and committee interviews with federal officials.

Holder made repeated attempts to cool the temperature in the room by outlining steps the Department of Justice has taken to ensure the controversial gun walking tactics never happen again. Alternately, however, the attorney general found himself more than once returning fire.

“You took a whole series of statements out of context [and] there’s a whole bunch of things that I could say about what you just did — and maybe this is the way you do things in Idaho or wherever you’re from — but understand something: I’m proud of the work that I’ve done as attorney general of the United States, and looked at fairly, I think I’ve done a pretty good job,” Holder responded to Labrador’s slide show.

“Have I been perfect? No,” he continued. “Have I made mistakes? Yes. Do I treat the members of this committee with respect? I always hope that I do. And what you have just done is, if nothing else, disrespectful, and if you don’t like me, that’s one thing, but you should respect the fact that I hold an office that is deserving of respect. Maybe you’re new to this committee; I don’t know how long you’ve been here. But my hope would be that we can get beyond that kind of interaction, that kind of treatment of a witness.”

Issa has found varying degrees of success in his investigation of Fast and Furious, which for much of the past year has involved sifting through thousands of pages of documents and email records obtained through subpoenas, and nearly two dozen transcribed interviews with officials from DOJ and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives  (ATF).

Five months ago, the top two officials at the ATF, which oversaw the operation on the ground, were reassigned, and the U.S. attorney in Arizona, who was in charge of the operation’s legal advice, resigned as a result of his involvement with Fast and Furious.

But Issa has fallen short of clearly showing that top Justice officials turned a blind eye to the operational details of letting guns walk.

On Wednesday night, before the hearing, Issa’s office released a memo that it had circulated to Republicans on the committee, emphasizing that because Justice approved wiretap applications for Fast and Furious that contained details of the operation, top department officials must have known guns were being allowed to walk. The contents of the wiretap applications have not been made publicly available.

Republicans have long maintained that the Justice Department is not being forthcoming with documents. Earlier this week, Issa threatened to hold Holder in contempt of Congress if he does not hand over more documents relating to a Feb. 4, 2011, letter the department sent to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). The letter, which has since been withdrawn because of the glaring falsehoods contained within it, stated that the department does everything possible to interdict weapons before they cross into Mexico.

Republicans at Thursday’s hearing unveiled a graphic titled: “Fortress Holder.” At its center was a Disney Land-like castle surrounded by a tall wall with the caption under it reading: “StoneWall City.”

“There are some things in there that’s being hidden that you don’t want us to see,” said Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) about the documents Issa has requested.

“I don’t know if it involves you or some other ATF agents, or some other members of the Justice Department, but … for you to deny this committee anything like that is just dead wrong and I don’t think you’re going to find any way that you can do it. And I would urge the chairman to move a contempt citation against you, if you don’t give them to us.”

As some Democrats called attention to the political tone of the hearing, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) laid out a heavily sarcastic line of questioning, faking astonishment that Issa had not called a hearing to address the concerns of ATF agents about the lack of a federal firearms trafficking statute or more severe penalties for straw purchasers of weapons.  

— Updated at 4:29 p.m. and 8:16 p.m.

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