The dance: Holder avoids congressional questions on Fast and Furious accountability

Matthew Boyle Investigative Reporter
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Attorney General Eric Holder refused to tell members of the Senate Judiciary Committee who he’s going to hold accountable for several aspects of the Operation Fast and Furious scandal, nor did he disclose how he is going to hold people accountable.

Holder deflected Department of Justice and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives responsibility for Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry’s death. “It is not fair,” Holder said, “to say the mistakes that happened in Fast and Furious directly led to the death of Agent Terry.” Holder refused to apologize to Terry’s family, including his mother.

Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn asked Holder if he thinks it was his “responsibility to have known about this operation.”

“There are,” Holder replied, “115,000 employees in the United States Department of Justice.”

“And the buck stops with you?” Cornyn countered.

“I have ultimate responsibility for that which happens within the department, but I cannot be expected to know the details of every operation that is ongoing within the Justice Department on a day-to-day basis,” Holder answered. “I did not know about Fast and Furious, as indicated in the chart (that you now have up there) until … it became public.”

Cornyn wasn’t any more satisfied with Holder’s second deflection of responsibility.

“You cannot be expected to have known about the operation known as Fast and Furious despite the fact that we know you received [a National Drug Intelligence Center] memo on July the 5th, 2010,” Cornyn asserted. “You received another memo on Fast and Furious on Nov. 1, 2010, and you say you cannot be expected to have known about it, because of the size of your agency?”

Later on, Cornyn demanded to know if Holder could “name one person who’s been held accountable for this Fast and Furious Operation.”

“Well, we have made a number of changes with regard to personnel both in the Phoenix U.S. Attorneys Office, also at the ATF headquarters here,” Holder responded. “I will certainly await the report that comes out of the inspector general. And I will assure you and the American people that people will be held accountable for any mistakes that were made in connection with Fast and Furious.”

When the acting ATF director, Ken Melson, was reassigned — not fired — he was moved into another ranking DOJ position much closer to Holder than the position of acting director is.

When Arizona U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke was resigned, Holder praised him, making no mention of his resignation’s connection to Fast and Furious until Tuesday.

“United States Attorney Dennis Burke has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorneys’ Office, first as a line prosecutor over a decade ago and more recently as United States attorney,” Holder said in a statement when Burke resigned in late August. “Under his leadership, the office has made great progress in its pursuit of justice with the creation of special units focusing on civil rights enforcement and rule of law, as well as more robust outreach to key communities, particularly in Indian country.”

On Tuesday, when pressed on what he has done to hold his officials accountable for Fast and Furious, Holder said Burke’s resignation was in response to Operation Fast and Furious.

Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley also pushed Holder on inconsistent statements on who at the DOJ is being held accountable and how.

“Someone in the Justice Department leaked a document to the press, along with talking points, in an attempt to smear one of the ATF whistle-blowers who testified before the House,” Grassley said to Holder in the Tuesday Senate hearing. “This document was supposed to be so sensitive that you refused to provide it to Congress, but then someone provided it to the press.”

“The name of the criminal suspect in the document was deleted but the name of the ATF agent was not,” Grassley continued. “This looks like a clear and intentional violation of the Privacy Act as well as an attempt at whistle-blower retaliation. You already told me in a phone conversation that someone had been held accountable for this, but your staff has refused to provide my staff with any details. Who was held accountable, and how?”

Holder wouldn’t answer, saying it was a matter “under investigation” so he could not comment, accusing Grassley of breaking rules of common courtesy.

“You and I worked together on a variety of things and I think we have a good relationship,” Holder told Grassley. “You sent me a handwritten note that I looked at, took very seriously, and referred that letter to [the Office of Professional Responsibility] or the [inspector general] — I’m not sure which of the two — and asked them to try to find out what happened. I called you to try to indicate to you that I had taken that matter seriously and action had been taken.”

Holder didn’t stop there. “In a different time in Washington, I’m not sure what you just said would have been shared with everyone here, but so be it,” he continued, accusing Grassley of impropriety while dodging the question. “It’s a different time, I suppose.”

Grassley hit back, saying that if Holder had cooperated with his investigation in private, he wouldn’t have needed to publicly ask the question. “You understand that I told you over the phone conversation that if you wanted me not to ask this question, that I said, ‘Have your staff inform my staff,’ because I work very closely with my staff, and give the details so that I would know that this would be an inappropriate question to ask at this hearing,” Grassley replied.

Holder continued to refuse to answer who was held accountable for smearing an ATF whistle-blower and how they where held accountable. He did, however, admit there were at least two leaks of information aimed at smearing Fast and Furious whistle-blowers.

Grassley also asked Holder if Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer offered him his immediate resignation for not correcting facts he allegedly knew were false in a February 4 letter the DOJ sent Grassley. That letter stated, falsely, that the ATF did not ever allow guns to walk. Breuer admitted the statement was false last week, and said that he regrets not having corrected it sooner.

Holder retorted that he does not think Breuer is responsible for the false statements provided to Congress and that Breuer shouldn’t resign. “No, he has not [offered me his resignation],” Holder said. “And, I don’t expect to hear a resignation offer from Mr. Breuer.”

To be able to prove that DOJ officials outright lied to Congress, congressional investigators need to figure out who drafted the February 4 letter laced with false statements. Grassley said that Holder is risking “contempt of Congress” by protecting documents and information the House Oversight Committee subpoenaed that would prove who was involved in writing the letter.

“You’re refusing to provide drafts of that February 4 letter and emails about the drafts — even though they have been subpoenaed by the House — without a valid constitutional privilege, and that, of course, risks contempt of Congress,” Grassley told Holder. “Why would you risk contempt of Congress to prevent us from finding out who reviewed the drafts of that letter and whether they knew that they contained false statements?”

Holder said he and the DOJ will “certainly try to work with you and provide you with all the relevant information that we can,” but he would not promise to provide any extra information, even though a congressional subpoena legally requires Holder to do so.

“We will, however, act in a way that’s consistent with other attorneys general who’ve made determinations as to what information can be shared with congressional oversight committees — these are Republican as well as Democratic attorneys general,” Holder said. “I will act in a manner that’s consistent with the tradition and the history of the department.”

Grassley finished off his line of questioning by asking Holder, “Who will be held accountable for allowing a letter to Congress with a statement that many people in the Justice Department knew was false?”

“Again,” Holder concluded, “I have to dispute, with due respect, the assertion that people in the Justice Department knew [information in the letter] was false,” Holder said. “People in the Justice Department, who were responsible for the creation of that letter, again, relied on information provided to them that they thought was accurate. We only know that the information was inaccurate in hindsight. At the time the letter was prepared it was thought the information was, in fact, correct.”

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