WASHINGTON – Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday's votes holding him in contempt of Congress are the culmination of a misguided and politically motivated congressional investigation by Republican Rep. Darrell Issa and others who focused on "politics over public safety."
Speaking in New Orleans, the attorney general called the House action "unnecessary and unwarranted" and defended his performance in regard to the failed gun-tracking program called Operation Fast and Furious that precipitated the unprecedented votes against a sitting Cabinet member.
"Today's vote may make for good political theater in the minds of some, but it is — at base — both a crass effort and a grave disservice to the American people," Holder said.
The House held the attorney general in criminal contempt of Congress for failing to provide documents on how the Justice Department came to the realization that federal agents in Arizona had used a controversial investigative tactic known as gun-walking. A separate vote Thursday on civil contempt passed 258-95. It will allow the House to go to court in an effort to force Holder to turn over the documents.
Issa is the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that has been investigating Operation Fast and Furious for the past year and a half.
Holder told reporters that "as a result of the action taken today by the House, an unnecessary court conflict will ensue. My efforts to resolve this matter short of such a battle were rebuffed by Congressman Issa and by his supporters."
When concerns about Operation Fast and Furious first came to light, Holder said he took action by ordering an independent investigation into what happened. The probe by the Justice Department's inspector general is still under way.
In relying on gun-walking, federal agents allowed the buyers of illicitly purchased guns to transport the weapons instead of intercepting the guns. The goal was to track them to major arms-traffickers. In Operation Fast and Furious, the effort failed when agents lost track of some of the weapons. The operation identified more than 2,000 illicitly purchased weapons. Some 1,400 of them have yet to be recovered.
Holder pointed out that gun-walking was carried out during the George W. Bush administration.
"We learned that the flawed tactics used in this operation began in the previous administration — but I made sure that they ended in this one," Holder said. Three such operations took place from 2006 to early 2009.
Associated Press writer Michael Kunzelman in New Orleans contributed to this report.