WASHINGTON – The Justice Department on Wednesday rejected an assertion by a House committee chairman that top Justice officials are covering up events surrounding a flawed gun-smuggling probe, Operation Fast and Furious.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., made the accusation in a letter threatening to seek a contempt of Congress ruling against Attorney General Eric Holder for failing to turn over congressionally subpoenaed documents that were created after problems with Fast and Furious came to light.
Holder was to testify Thursday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which Issa chairs.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole responded that the department will provide material created after Feb. 4, 2011, the day the department gave incorrect information to Congress about Fast and Furious. At the time, the department said federal agents made every effort to intercept illegally purchased weapons. Instead, agents in the Phoenix-based Fast and Furious investigation tried to track the weapons after purchase to make cases against gun-smuggling ring leaders who had long escaped prosecution.
Cole said the department would make an exception to longstanding policy to provide material on how the erroneous Feb. 4 letter was created but that other material related to congressional inquiries about Fast and Furious would not be turned over.
A committee spokesman, Frederick Hill, responded the department is under investigation for Fast and Furious but also for its response to whistleblowers and investigators who expressed concern about the operation.
"If the Justice Department cannot provide assurances that it will meet its legal obligations" and provide the documents, "the committee has no other option than moving to hold Attorney General Holder in contempt," Hill said.
In his testimony prepared for Thursday's hearing, the attorney general said that prior administrations have recognized that robust internal communications would be chilled, and the executive branch's ability to respond to oversight requests impeded, if internal communications concerning responses to congressional oversight were disclosed to Congress.
In Fast and Furious, agents lost track of about 1,400 weapons they were tracking after they were sold to low-level straw purchasers believed to be supplying Mexican drug gangs and other criminals. Another 700 firearms connected to suspects in the investigation have been recovered, some from crime scenes in Mexico and the U.S., including a murder scene in Nogales, Ariz., where border agent Brian Terry was slain.
Issa's allegation was fueled by documents turned over Friday night by the Justice Department that contained new information about the events of early February, 2011.
Two days before Justice told Congress that federal agents made every effort to intercept illegally purchased weapons, the department's criminal division chief, Lanny Breuer, was suggesting letting some illicit "straw" weapons buyers in the U.S. transport their guns across the Mexican border where Mexican law enforcement could arrest them.
According to emails turned over to the committee, Breuer made the suggestion to Mexican officials because it "may send a strong message to arms traffickers" because Mexican laws contain far stiffer penalties against straw gun buyers than U.S. laws do.
Responding Wednesday to Issa, Cole said it is neither fair nor accurate to equate Breuer's suggestion to the risky "gun-walking" that the Phoenix division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed to take place in several gun-smuggling investigations that dated back to 2006 when Republican George W. Bush was president.
"In light of Assistant Attorney General Breuer's commitment to stemming the flow of guns from the United States into Mexico and his strong ties and collaborative relationships with his counterparts in Mexico, it is inconceivable that his intention was to have guns released into Mexico," Cole wrote.