Accusations and counter-accusations flew at Thursday’s hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, as GOP lawmakers threatened Attorney General Eric Holder with everything from impeachment to contempt of Congress during testimony over Operation Fast and Furious. The operation allowed thousands of weapons to fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartels, resulting in the deaths of hundreds including U.S. federal agent Brian Terry.
Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa asked early in the hearing for Holder to testify under oath, and was told by Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith he refused. He said Holder received a letter reminding him of his responsibility to be truthful and was therefore “deemed” to be under oath.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) took Holder to task over the lack of disclosure by the Justice Department and over what Oversight and Issa would later term “systematic lying” by DOJ officials:
Do you think the buck stops with you?
Lying to Congress is a federal felony. I don’t want to say you lied but what are you going to do to clean up the mess?
There is really no responsibility within the Justice Department. The thing is, if we don’t get to the bottom of this — and that requires your assistance on that — there is only one alternative that Congress has and it is called impeachment.
Holder used Clintonesque sentence parsing: he said the legal difference between lying and misleading was state of mind, and here there was no intent to lie. This comes on the heels of the DOJ’s unusual move just a few days ago of withdrawing a letter the DOJ earlier sent to Congress, claiming it was “misleading.” Weeks ago, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives Special Agent William Newell also admitted his testimony on Operation Fast and Furious “lacked completeness.”
Democrats, and indeed Holder, spent most of the hearing calling for more gun control. There was advocation for a regulation blocked by Republicans which would have required multiple purchases of long-guns to be reported to ATF in the four southwest border states. Said Howard Berman (D-CA):
[I have] heard a lot today, some of it quite unbelievably overblown. … Every day thousands of guns are smuggled across the border.
Maxine Waters (D-CA) — in what appeared to this writer to be a rehearsed moment — looked surprised when Holder told her there was no requirement for a federal firearms dealer to report the sale of 100 AK-47s. However, Holder admitted the example was “dramatic.”
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) asked Holder:
How many firearms are sold to al-Qaeda terrorists, to other convicted felons, to domestic violence perpetrators … to white supremacists” at “unregulated” gun shows?
Holder said he didn’t have those numbers but would “get them … after the hearing.”
Perhaps the greatest sparks of the day came when Issa questioned Holder. Issa took issue with what he considered a lack of candor and cooperation from Holder and DOJ, saying in his opening statement:
The president says he has full confidence in this attorney general. I have no confidence in a president who has confidence in this attorney general. … Mr. Attorney General, the blame must go to your desk.
Issa added that he did not believe DOJ was actually interested in finding out who murdered Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, whose murder was one of the precipitating factors in the current scandal:
They are not looking for who killed Brian Terry, but are more interested in maintaining plausible deniability.
Holder later claimed that there has been an indictment in the Terry murder case but said he could not comment further as the case was under court-ordered seal.
Issa expressed frustration at the difficulties inherent in getting Holder and his deputies to agree to testify before his committee.
Do I need to serve a subpoena on yourself, Lanny Breuer, and the other people under direct investigation by my committee? Or will you agree to come voluntarily in the January time frame before the committee?
Issa threatened Holder with contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over any documents generated after February of 2010. Issa asked Holder if he was aware he was potentially standing in contempt of Congress for refusing to release documents requested by the committee without giving a constitutional reason to have done so. Holder responded:
We will respond as other attorney’s general and other Justice departments have done.
John Mitchell responded that way too.
Mitchell was Richard Nixon’s AG during Watergate. Holder fired back by referring to the Joe McCarthy hearings:
As they said in the McCarthy hearings, have you no shame?
It was clear that Democrats and Holder were in damage control mode, trying to both salvage Holder and to use the operation to call for more gun control while blaming Republicans. Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA), attacked this strategy:
You screwed up, you admit you screwed up, but don’t use your screw up as an attempt to extend your authority.