Congressional Republicans Thursday took the first formal steps toward holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt, issuing a draft of their complaint against him for his handling of the Fast and Furious gunrunning scandal.
The 44-page complaint, issued by House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., asks the full House to hold Holder in contempt for “failure to comply with a congressional subpoena.”
Issa uses damning language to make the case against Holder, saying that his Department of Justice holds “contempt against the American people,” and claiming that whistleblower agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) were “left to twist in the wind” by Holder and Justice.
“One confidential witness told Congress that he overheard Scot Thomasson, chief ATF spokesman, say early on in the congressional inquiry into Fast and Furious: ‘We need to get whatever dirt we can on these guys [the whistleblowers] and take them down,’” a 17-page briefing paper accompanying the complaint says.
“The actions of the Department of Justice towards the whistleblowers over the next year indicate that these words were part of a concerted effort at retaliation.”
Fast and Furious was a scheme in which the ATF allowed nearly 2,000 weapons to be bought and smuggled across the border where they fell into the hands of violent Mexican drug cartels.
The plan was they would be traced and lead agents to cartel leaders, but Issa says the scheme “never had a chance of success.”
Hundreds of guns went missing and were used in dozens of crimes on both sides of the border, including the killings of two American agents — Border Patrol officer Brian Terry in Arizona and immigration officer Jaime Zapata in Mexico.
Issa insists that Fast and Furious, which was based in the ATF’s Phoenix office, was not a local effort.
“It was the Justice Department’s flagship arms trafficking investigation for a year and a half,” he says.
But he says a lack of coordination between Justice, the ATF, the CIA, and the Drug Enforcement Agency, pointed to “a likelihood of monumental management dysfunction.”
“To date, the Justice Department has not indicated what official had the responsibility to coordinate and de-conflict law enforcement efforts across agencies,” Issa says.
And he said Holder and his department have been more concerned about covering up any potential wrongdoing than helping discover the scheme’s inherent faults.
“Until now, the Justice Department’s desire to protect senior officials from embarrassment from Operation Fast and Furious has superseded its willingness to work cooperatively with Congress to address a massive information sharing and agency coordination problem that Congress and the Bush Administration worked together to solve a decade ago.”
Issa says just about everything that has been discovered about the scheme has come from ATF whistleblowers or journalists. “Little of what is known today came as a result of formal Justice Department disclosures.”
The committee’s complaint against Holder points out that many of the documents the department has released have had huge portions blacked out, making them virtually unintelligible.
Issa says that as late as February last year, the Justice Department was misleading Congress into thinking that the whistleblowers’ accusations should be dismissed.
“Why, after all, would anyone be so stupid as to think arming drug cartels was a good idea?” he asks.
Issa also contrasts the handling of Fast and Furious with last month’s inquiry surrounding Secret Service agents and prostitutes.
“In dealing with a prostitution scandal in Cartagena, Colombia, the Secret Service has demonstrated that agencies can conduct investigations swiftly, determine responsibility, and act decisively to hold wrongdoers accountable,” Issa’s briefing paper says.
“The Justice Department’s response, however, has been the polar opposite. More than a year after field operations of Fast and Furious ended, the Attorney General still insists he needs more facts before holding individuals responsible for facilitating the transfer of weapons to Mexican drug cartels to account,” it says.
“To many Americans, this inaction creates the impression that the Department is trying to run out the clock on the relatively short lifespan of political appointments.
“The Justice Department’s failure to respond appropriately to the allegations of whistleblowers and to cooperate with Congressional oversight has crossed the line of appropriate conduct for a government agency,” Issa adds.
“Congress now faces a moment of decision between exerting its full authority to compel an agency refusing to cooperate with congressional oversight or accepting a dangerous expansion of Executive Branch authority and unilateral action allowing agencies to set their own terms for cooperating with congressional oversight.”
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