Holder tried to stonewall, spin ‘Fast and Furious’ probe, panel says
By Evan Lips | April 15, 2016, 17:35 EST
WASHINGTON – Former Attorney General Eric Holder, President Barack Obama’s pick to run the Justice Department, played a crucial role in an effort to cover up the government’s “Fast and Furious” Mexican gun trafficking scandal, a congressional investigative panel said Thursday.
“Senior Justice Department official – including Attorney General Eric Holder – intensely followed and managed an effort to carefully limit and obstruct the information produced to Congress,” the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform said in a report about a trove of thousands of documents finally turned over by the administration after about five years of delays.
The stack of more than 20,500 documents related to the gun-trafficking mission, dubbed Operation Fast and Furious, finally landed in the hands of the committee earlier this month, after U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson ordered the administration to fork them over on Jan. 19.
Holder, now ensconced in a Wall Street law firm, refused to deliver documents in response to the committee’s demands in 2011 and in 2012, Obama cited “executive privilege” for withholding the information. Jackson, however, rejected that argument.
“The documents show the lengths to which senior department officials went to keep the information from Congress,” committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said in Thursday’s report. “Justice Department officials in Washington impeded the congressional investigation in severals ways.”
The report says the administration at first refused to believe that weapons tied to the murder of a border patrol agent in 2010 were among the 2,000 guns that were allowed to “walk” across the border to Mexican drug cartels as part of a U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives probe, then trying to cover up the connection. The panel said the administration tried to contain fallout from the incident by blaming the Arizona U.S. attorney’s office and local ATF leaders, and politicizing the congressional investigation into the matter.
Origins of a scandal
On Dec. 15, 2010, Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry died in a firefight near Mexican territory. Two guns discovered at the scene, which were used to kill Terry, were traced back to ATF’s secret gun-running sting job, Operation Fast and Furious.
Terry’s death led to news reports about the undercover operation, one involving ATF’s Arizona field office. In the operation, ATF agents purposely allowed licensed gun dealers to sell weapons to known straw buyers, in the hopes that tracking the guns could lead authorities directly to Mexican drug cartel leaders.
But the operation led to more than 2,000 weapons disappearing into Mexico, with agents and other top officials losing track of the firearms.
As congressional hearings ensued, ATF agents testified that they frequently voiced concerns about the gun-walking strategy but that supervisors responded by ordering them to “get with the program” as senior agency officials had sanctioned the operation.
In January 2011, William Newell, the special agent in charge of ATF’s Phoenix office, responded to reporters’ questions at a news briefing about the indictments of 20 straw buyers – which another agent testified could have come months earlier and was likely a strategy to deflect attention from Terry’s killing.
During the briefing, Newell denied that the agency had purposefully let weapons move to Mexico, where drug-related violence has run rampant for years.
Emails sent in February 2011 by Justice Department officials to Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) emphatically denied that a “gun-walking” program was in place.
Almost a year later, Obama’s Justice Department – confronted with an expanding mountain of evidence to the contrary – finally retracted the letter and admitted to the operation to intentionally allow weapons to flow across the border to drug gangs. Congress also issued a subpoena to Holder demanding the release of all relevant documents.
On June 20, 2012, Obama exercised his executive privilege power to keep documents related to the botched operation from becoming public. Later that month, the House voted to hold Holder in contempt for stonewalling over the botched operation.
Holder responded by describing it as “the regrettable culmination of what became a misguided – and politically motivated – investigation during an election year,” cable television’s CNN.com reported.
U.S. Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) told the network Holder “does not deserve this.”
“The Fast and Furious Papers”
The 20,500 documents finally released show the degree to which the administration and Holder tried to block the Congressional investigation, Chaffetz said in the panel’s report. He said the administration had intentionally created “a culture of animosity toward congressional oversight.”
Chaffetz also noted that the Justice Department continues to withhold thousands more documents covered under his committee’s subpoena.
The newly released documents show that the administration knew as early as June 2011 that guns trafficked in the operation were used to kill Terry, but denied those facts until December 2011.
Other documents shine a light on the administration’s game plan for controlling media coverage. A March 9, 2011, email from a Justice Department lawyer to other agency officials referred to a letter from gun lobbyists with the National Rifle Association urging Congress to hold hearings on ATF’s firearms trafficking.
“Chutzpah,” wrote Ron Weich, assistant attorney general for legislative affairs. “The NRA’s now-public involvement in this may be useful in convincing reporters that this is part of the overall effort to discredit ATF.”
Another March 2011 email referred to answering a Republican lawmaker who wanted to know how many weapons had entered Mexico as a result of the operation. The email, written by a senior ATF official to a Justice Department official, reportedly stated, “we would suggest that you pull the sentence that notes how many weapons we’ve recovered – it squares poorly with how many we haven’t.”
In another inter-department email sent on May 4, 2011, Holder refers to a Wall Street Journal report outlining the role of Lanny Breuer, a top Justice Department official, in Fast and Furious, and appears to be concerned about appearances: “If we go out with something do we make it worse?” he asked.
“Everyone get ready – this isn’t about facts,” Holder wrote in advising his underlings on handling the issues.
A June 15, 2011, email from a Federal Bureau of Investigation legislative office staffer to the Justice Department made clear that it would be a “very bad idea” to provide Congress with some of the requested documents, warning that “if the documents are provided here, we can expect to see specific requests to DOJ and the FBI for documents in pending criminal investigations as a routine matter from committee chairs.”
Another email exchange in September 2011 shows that Justice Department lawyers were advising top officials to withhold even the number of documents that were involved, noting that “giving a page count is an inappropriate accommodation at this point.”
Additional email exchanges show that Justice Department officials attempted to isolate the fallout from Fast and Furious to ATF and the Arizona U.S. Attorney’s Office, Chaffetz said in the report. An Aug. 28, 2011, email refers to a strategy session Holder held with top Obama administration officials over how to announce the resignations of ATF Director Ken Melson and Arizona U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke.
Holder asked to have the door to Melson’s office shut, as he had already cleared out and Holder didn’t want word to leak that he had left, the emails show. The emails also indicate Holder wanted it to appear that Burke and Melson were both cut loose over Fast and Furious.
“We have to make known the breadth of the changes – at the top in USAO (Burke) and ATF (Melson),” Holder wrote, apparently as a way of convincing the public that the scandal had led to major changes in both agencies.
“These changes will help us move past the controversy that has surrounded Fast and Furious,” Weich wrote. “Ken Melson and Dennis Burke have both acknowledged mistakes in that area, and it will be useful to turn the page from those mistakes.”
Chaffetz has indicated his oversight panel will continue to seek the remaining documents still being withheld, including through the courts. In the meantime, the committee’s staff is combing through the newly released documents “to piece together how and why senior political officials in Washington obstructed the investigation of Fast and Furious.”
Chaffetz added that the appeal is needed to obtain the complete stack of documents.
“We expect those documents – which are still being withheld for inappropriate reasons by the Justice Department – will answer some of the outstanding questions about Operation Fast and Furious,” Chaffetz wrote.
Read the complete House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform report::
Read a consolidated collection of newly released emails: