Today before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder substantially changed his previous testimony about the Fast and Furious scandal, an Obama administration undercover gun operation that sold more than 2,000 guns to Mexican drug cartels.
Holder now repudiates the controversial program, calling it “unacceptable” and “flawed.” He says he was “bothered” by the program and that it was “inappropriate.” He did not say, however, that the undercover operation violated any federal laws.
The program was initiated in 2009 by the administration and executed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), a division of the U.S. Department of Justice. The bureau reports to the attorney general.
Guns linked to Fast and Furious were used in the killing of two U.S. agents and an estimated 200 people in Mexico.
Holder contradicted his previous statement that he personally became aware of the ATF program only a “few weeks” before his May 2011 testimony. Now, Holder admits he knew about the controversial gun running operation as early as the beginning of the year.
Acting as if he was still confused about the Fast and Furious program, he said: “Like each of you, I want to understand why and how” the gunwalking program came about. He says he is looking to to the Department’s inspector general “to learn” who had thought up the program and implemented it.
Dissatisfied with Holder’s response, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) asked the attorney general: “Are you winging this?”
His May 2011 denial of knowledge about the program contrasted with internal Justice Department memos that had circulated to Holder’s office as early as February of this year. The contradiction in his earlier testimony has prompted some members of Congress to call for Holder’s resignation.
Holder now concedes that as early as February he had learned about Fast and Furious, and that at the time he had directed agents to make corrections to the undercover operation.
Previously, Holder and officials at the Department of Justice had stonewalled congressional inquiries into the undercover operation.
Holder defended his deputy, U.S. Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, who on February 4, 2011 sent an erroneous and misleading letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee about Fast and Furious. Ranking Judiciary Committee Sen. Charles Grassley (R-KS) wanted to know if any Justice Department official “was accountable” for the submission of erroneous information to Congress. Holder told Sen. Grassley that Breuer did not offer to submit his resignation when his answers to the Senate were discovered to have been factually misleading and erroneous. Holder added he did not ask for Breuer’s resignation.
Holder claims he cannot be expected to “know about each and every program on a daily basis.” He said he “did not see” many documents that had his name on them referring to Operation Fast and Furious.
He blamed his staff for not forwarding the memos to him.
However, while denouncing the program he did not take any responsibility for it. He promised that people at the Department of Justice “will be held accountable,” but he did not stipulate who they could be or identify any department or bureau that could be in jeopardy. He also did not say whether the undercover operation may have violated any federal statutes or laws.
Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) tried to argue that Fast and Furious was an extension of a Bush administration undercover gun operation called Operation Wide Receiver which was begun in 2005. Wide Receiver was a significantly different operation that inserted RFID chips into weapons for tracking, with no intention of allowing the weapons to walk.
Schumer called it a “one-sided” investigation of the controversy and charged that former Attorney General Michael Mukasey may have indirectly “endorsed” Fast and Furious. Holder said he would look into it. However, Holder corrected Feinstein saying Fast and Furious began in 2009 under the Obama administration, not under President Bush in 2005.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Senator Feinstein suggested that Fast and Furious presentedan argument for more gun control. Senator Leahy said “we have a to take some steps here in the United States” to curtail gun shipments into Mexico.
Prior to the discovery of the undercover operation, Obama administration officials had used the rampant use of weapons by Mexican drug cartels as a pretext for greater gun control in the United States. Yet it was the Obama administration’s program that delivered many high-powered weapons into that country.
Asked if he had apologized to the family of murdered U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, who was killed with a weapon distributed by ATF agents, the attorney general said he had not. Asked if he had ever contacted the family since he had been slain, he said he had not. He says he does not believe Terry had been “directly” killed by Fast and Furious.
During testimony before the House Operations and Government Reform hearing in June of this year, the family of Officer Terry implored the administration to prosecute those responsible for the killing, saying:
We hope that the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms is forthcoming with all information that the panel is seeking. We ask that if a government official made a wrong decision that they admit their error and take responsibility for his or her actions. We hope that all individuals involved in Brian’s murder and those that played a role in putting the assault weapons in their hands are found and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
Many Democratic senators asked questions that were far afield from the Fast and Furious scandal. For example Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) only asked one question: about a bill he is sponsoring regarding bullying of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender school children. The attorney general said he would look into why the Justice Department has not formally endorsed the legislation.