Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republican who chairs the House Oversight Committee, was able to question Attorney General Eric Holder for the first time over the Project Gunrunner and Operation Fast and Furious scandal during a Tuesday morning hearing of the House Judiciary Committee. The scandal involves a sting operation conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in which American guns – including AK-47 assault rifles and military-grade, .50 caliber sniper rifles – were allowed to be smuggled into Mexico and sold to drug cartels, with the goal of tracking the weapons after they’ve been used.
At the hearing, Holder conceded to Issa that Congress has the authority to conduct investigations independent of the Justice Department. Holder also said the DOJ has 20 cases heading to trial in June on the subject. Issa doesn’t think much of those cases.
“Isn’t it true that those 20 cases going to trial in June are basically a bunch of meth addicts who were straw buying? You don’t have the kingpins,” Issa said. “What you have are the people you already had.”
Issa then asked Holder whether the Justice Department will cooperate with ongoing congressional investigations, which he says differ from the DOJ’s on who is being investigated. “We’re not looking at straw buyers, Mr. Attorney General, we’re looking at you,” Issa said. “We’re looking at you, we’re looking at your key people who knew or should’ve known about this.”
Holder said he’ll cooperate, but struck back against Issa’s charge of who’s responsible for wrongdoing with this program. “The notion that somehow or another that this Justice Department is responsible for those deaths, that assertion is offensive,” Holder said, referring to the deaths of American Border Patrol agents who may have been killed with American guns obtained through the program.
“What if it’s accurate, Mr. Attorney General?” Issa responded.
“What am I going to tell Agent Terry’s mother about how he died at the hand of a gun that was videotaped as it was being sold to a straw purchaser fully expecting it to end up in the hands of drug cartels?” Issa asked Holder.
Holder responded to Issa’s question by saying: “We’ll have to see exactly what happened with regard to the guns that are an issue there.”
Issa was referring to Brian Terry, a Border Patrol agent who was killed last December. At the scene of the crime, two AK47s that were purchased in America and distributed to drug cartels under Project Gunrunner and Operation Fast and Furious program.
The project began as a trial during the Bush administration in Laredo, Texas in 2005. It ultimately morphed into a national program in 2006. The guns were sold and tracked electronically, giving law enforcement agents valuable intelligence on where the weapons went and who had them.
During the Bush years, no guns were allowed to cross the border into Mexico. When President Obama took office in 2009, things changed. Obama’s ATF continued Project Gunrunner, but made a crucial decision to allow guns to be “walked” into Mexico. The weapons eventually ended up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels.
Holder and President Barack Obama have both denied authorizing or knowing anything about the program. Holder said he first heard about it “over the past few weeks,” after “these operations have gotten a great deal of publicity.” Issa replied to that statement by saying he didn’t think it was getting enough publicity.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, began requesting documents from ATF and the DOJ in early March, but ran into roadblocks because he doesn’t have subpoena power. Issa, who does have subpoena power, stepped in shortly thereafter and began investigating. ATF has since missed several request deadlines that Issa put forth for information, and missed a subpoena deadline as well. Issa has also requested information from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton because since the program involved another country, it likely required some sort of oversight or approval from the State Department.
Referring to ATF’s recently missed document subpoena deadline, Issa asked Holder if he “take[s] seriously a subpoena signed by the clerk of the House?” Holder said he does, and that it’s just taken more time than he expected to put the information together. Issa said he received a response from the DOJ late Monday night, 32 days after his initial requests. The response included three already-public documents and an indication that 400 extra pages of information “were not going to be produced.”