Politics

Rifts in Congressional Black Caucus over Fast and Furious, Holder

Matthew Boyle Investigative Reporter

A Congressional Black Caucus staffer told The Daily Caller on Monday that the “general feeling” of most caucus members is that the congressional investigation into Operation Fast and Furious is warranted. But, the staffer added, most members think the investigation has turned into a “witch hunt.”

The CBC hasn’t taken an official stance on Fast and Furious or whether Attorney General Eric Holder is responsible for the scandal-plagued operation. There have been major rifts among its members over the scandal. For instance, Georgia Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson, a member of the House Judiciary Committee made infamous by wondering aloud if Guam would capsize from overpopulation, told TheDC last week that he thinks the tea party and the National Rifle Association “manufactured” the scandal surrounding the program that led to the deaths of at least 300 Mexican citizens and Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.

“I think this is another manufactured controversy by the second amendment, NRA Republican tea party movement,” Johnson said outside a Judiciary Committee hearing where Attorney General Eric Holder was testifying on the scandal last Thursday.

But, the House oversight committee’s ranking Democratic member, Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, disagreed with Johnson’s claims that the tea party movement and the NRA “manufactured” the controversy. During an interview on Monday, Cummings, also a CBC member, told TheDC that he thinks Fast and Furious really is a scandal and wasn’t “manufactured” by the tea party movement and the NRA.

“No, no, I don’t think so,” Cummings said. “I think what happened is there were some agents on the lower level who — and by the way it did not just start during the Obama administration. We know of three instances of Fast and Furious type operations during the Bush administration.”

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“I think you had some people who were a little bit overzealous on the lower level and did not communicate properly to the upper levels and botched an operation and it should have never happened,” Cummings added.

Cummings previously told CBS News that he thinks Terry’s family deserves answers and accountability, but he does agree with the unofficial CBC stance that the investigation into Fast and Furious has turned into a “witch hunt.”

Fast and Furious was a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives program overseen by the Justice Department. The operation started under Holder’s leadership at the Justice Department, but he claims he was unaware of what was going on during until after press reports of the scandal emerged in early 2011.

The operation facilitated the sale of thousands of weapons to Mexican drug cartels via straw purchasers. Straw purchasers are people who legally purchase guns in the United States with the known intention of illegally trafficking them somewhere else. In Fast and Furious, the straw purchasers were known to be trafficking the weapons into Mexico, effectively arming Mexican drug cartels.

Cummings spokeswoman Ashley Etienne doubled down on the top oversight committee Democrat’s support for investigating the DOJ’s actions throughout Fast and Furious.

In an email to TheDC on Monday, Etienne said that Cummings thinks the investigation into Fast and Furious is well deserved and that he doesn’t think it’s a scandal the tea party and the NRA contrived. “Cummings has always said that the allegations regarding Fast and Furious are serious and deserve a thorough, even-handed, and full investigation,” Etienne said.

Etienne, however, would not answer when TheDC asked whether Cummings thought Holder should resign over Fast and Furious, nor would she answer if Cummings thinks Holder should provide any and all potential emails he’s sent or received about Fast and Furious from his personal or professional email accounts.

Last week, Holder avoided answering questions about whether or not he’s used his personal email account to communicate with top officials in the Justice Department about Fast and Furious.

She also wouldn’t answer when TheDC asked if Cummings thought Holder should apologize for incorrectly saying multiple times in congressional hearings that the memos and briefings he claims not to have read didn’t include details about the “tactics” used in Fast and Furious.

Many of the memos Holder was sent about Fast and Furious while it was ongoing did include details about the gun walking tactics the ATF was using.

“This investigation [Fast and Furious, named in the memo] — initiated in September 2009 in conjunction with the Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Phoenix Police Department — involves a Phoenix-based firearms trafficking ring headed by Manuel Celis-Acosta,” one such memos reads. “Celis-Acosta and straw purchasers are responsible for the purchase of 1,500 firearms that were then supplied to Mexican drug-trafficking cartels. They also have direct ties to the Sinaloa Cartel, which is suspected of providing $1 million for the purchase of firearms in the greater Phoenix area.”

Cummings has tried to push the theme that the Bush administration conducted gun walking as an investigative tactic as well — which is true, but unlike Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department, the Bush administration worked with Mexican law enforcement on a plan to track weapons and make arrests, and no Bush-era guns have been linked to murders. The Bush administration also allowed far fewer guns to walk, and chose not to prosecute cases that used gun-walking tactics.

Holder’s criminal division head, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, revived the Bush administration gun walking cases for prosecution, sending the message to those who conceived gun walking in the first place that the administration would condone and reward such tactics by prosecuting the cases.

Even so, Cummings maintains his support for the embattled Holder. Instead of holding Holder responsible for what his Justice Department did, Cummings blames Congress for Fast and Furious. That’s because, in his mind, Congress hasn’t passed the gun laws he says ATF claims it needs.

Though the CBC hasn’t taken an official stance on Holder and Fast and Furious, the caucus staffer who spoke with TheDC said that “the caucus sentiments concerning this issue falls in line with Ranking Member Elijah Cummings.”

“They see [the investigation] as a witch hunt,” the staffer said. “Mistakes were made which do deserve investigation. But we can’t forget that the predecessors to these programs began under the Bush Administration.”

“Members of the CBC fully support the Attorney General and believe that he is handling this issue in the right way,” the staffer added.

The CBC’s only Republican member, Florida Rep. Allen West, has called for Holder’s resignation over Fast and Furious. When TheDC asked him for comment on Johnson’s claims that the tea party and the NRA “manufactured” the controversy, West dismissed them as ridiculous. “Consider the source,” West said in an email to TheDC on Monday.

Another CBC member, Georgia Democratic Rep. Sanford Bishop, signed a June 3 letter with 30 other Democrats to President Barack Obama asking him to direct the Justice Department and Holder to comply with the congressional investigation.

“Reports of the tactics used in this operation are extremely troubling,” Bishop and 30 of his Democratic colleagues wrote to Obama. “The ATF allegedly encouraged gun store owners to sell thousands of firearms to customers whom store employees considered suspicious.”

“It is equally troubling that the Department of Justice has delayed action and withheld information from Congressional inquiries,” the 31 Democrats wrote.

Bishop’s spokesperson, Micah Ragland, has avoided press requests about Fast and Furious from The Daily Caller. Ragland did not responded to a request about whether Bishop continues to think Fast and Furious is worth investigating or if he agrees with Johnson.

Videography by Direna Cousins

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