House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) strongly signaled that this week’s investigative report fingering 14 federal agents and prosecutors for wrongdoing in Operation Fast and Furious isn’t the end of the congressional probe into the botched gun-walking case.
But to “perhaps eliminate the need for a protracted fight in the courts,” Issa noted, the committee is hoping “we will in the coming days see a level of cooperation we have not thus seen.”
“It would be hopeful that that kind of willingness to have our investigators see what you have seen, would in fact allow this to come to a quicker close,” the chairman said to Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, the sole witness at today’s hearing to review the findings of his investigation.
“I want to congratulate him on in fact delivering an extremely comprehensive, strong and independent report. … Although this report will not bring a complete end to the need for us to work with Justice to bring genuine reform to their process, it goes a long way toward that,” Issa said at the opening of the proceedings.
“The conclusions after 19 months of hard work, of course, are greater than some would want and fall short of what others would want. They cannot by definition bring complete closure, because even the I.G. in his report still has some questions,” he continued. “There were some individuals and some documents that are not yet available. But like any document, you have to, at some point, cut it off, come as you are and bring what you have. I think this was the appropriate time.”
Issa later noted in a line of Democratic questioning that the report was “thorough at the minimum possible number of pages.”
And heavy emphasis was placed on pages requested in very public battles between the Oversight panel and Attorney General Eric Holder’s department.
“I will particularly note that I’m pleased that in some cases, the executive privilege invalidly claimed by the president of the United States was not asserted in this discovery,” Issa said. “Some materials contained in this report do help us, because they are, in fact, many of the items that we wish we have received, in some cases were told we received, but, in fact, we later found were provided to the I.G. and not to us.”
“Nothing in this report vindicates anyone. If you touched, looked, could have touched, could have looked, could have asked for information that could have caused you to intervene, to complain, to worry, to talk to people and you didn’t and you are in our government, or even if you aren’t in our government but were aware of it, you fell short of your responsibility.”
Horowitz’s team reviewed more than 100,000 pages of documents and interviewed 130 witnesses in compiling the report.
“They did it under the microscope of a highly politicized environment in which public accusations were sometimes made before the search for evidence even began,” said Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).
Cummings noted that he has had disagreements with Issa over the process, but commended the chairman as the committee uncovered “a severe problem that was festering since 2006.”
“I also want to commend the attorney general. I have lost count of how many times he has testified on this issue, but he has remained even-handed, respectful, and always true to the daunting and critical mission of the department he leads,” Cummings said. “He requested this I.G. investigation, and he has already put numerous reforms in place.”
“…I’ve always believed, and I continue to believe that the committee and the department can resolve any lingering issues without further conflict.”
Horowitz told the committee that his team “abided by one bedrock principle: to follow the facts and the evidence wherever they led.”
“We also did not find any persuasive evidence that supervisors in Phoenix, at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, or at ATF headquarters raised serious questions or concerns about the risks to the public safety, posed by the continuing firearm purchases or by the delay in arresting individuals who were engaged in the trafficking activity,” he said.
“…Our review revealed a series of misguided strategies, tactics, errors in judgments and management failures that permeated ATF headquarters and the Phoenix field division as well as the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the headquarters of the Department of Justice.”
Sitting in on the hearing was Rep. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.), who said that slain Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry’s family told him “that they may well have been deliberately kept in the dark about Brian’s death, and the circumstances surrounding it.”
“I don’t recall us seeing evidence of discussions specifically about what to tell the Terry family,” Horowitz said.
Issa noted that the committee received fewer than 8,000 pages of documents and asked Horowitz if any of the documents that he saw, including the post-Feb. 4 pages long-requested and long-denied to Issa, should be withheld from Congress.
“Every document we asked for and reviewed and cited in this report we found to be relevant and important,” the I.G. said.
Issa also asked about assertions by “many, mostly on the other side of the aisle, that there’s nothing in these wiretap applications that would have caused senior officials to see any red flags as to the reckless tactics.”
“As we said in the report, and I also, myself, reviewed the 14 applications, believed that if you were focussed and looking at the question of gun walking, you would read these reports and see many red flags,” Horowitz responded.
Cummings focused his questions more on Operation Wide Receiver in the Bush administration. “You also found that neither Attorney General Mukasey nor Attorney General Holder authorized or approved gun walking. Is that right?”
“That’s correct, although I would note Attorney General Mukasey was sworn in after the completion of Operation Wide Receiver’s investigative portion of the activity,” Horowitz noted.
“We have a dead Border Patrol agent, nearly 2,000 AK-47s released, hundreds of dead Mexicans, a Mexican helicopter shot down at one point, a dead Border Patrol agent, hundreds of guns that are still unaccounted for, untold number of crimes that have been committed with these guns, and an attorney general whose best guess and best argument is that — is the plea of ignorance,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).
“On guns, if you were so concerned about guns on the border, then my colleagues could have supported the bills that we put forward, the Democrats, to really — for gun safety. So in my opinion, you’re not serious,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.).
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) asked Horowitz point-blank if he found “any evidence that Attorney General Holder approved of the gun walking tactics that are under investigation.”
“As we outlined in the report, we found no evidence that the attorney general was aware in 2010, before Senator Grassley’s letter, of operation Fast and Furious and the tactics associated with it,” Horowitz said.
“We found that the acting deputy attorney general was briefed about operation Fast and Furious in March of 2010, but we concluded, after looking at what that briefing involved, which was item 4 of a 7-item agenda in a 45-minute briefing, that it wasn’t a sufficient briefing to put him on notice directly and expressly that gun walking was occurred — had occurred,” he added.
Horowitz clarified under questioning that his office never had to make any determinations about executive privilege, because they asked for all documents at the outset and received them.
“I think it’s wonderful at one level that we have an independent entity like you to investigate,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.). “I just naively thought that’s what the Department of Justice was.”
Revisiting the issue of the documents withheld from Congress, Issa asked if Horowitz thought “it is appropriate for the department to deliberately withhold these documents without citing any reason or privilege for doing so.”
“Let me just say, they were clearly, to us, highly relevant,” the I.G. responded. “I frankly don’t know the back and forth that occurred or the decision-making that occurred within the department, so I don’t think I’m in a position to answer precisely that question.”
“So when the attorney general has repeatedly said that he made unprecedented levels of documents available to us, he was thorough and complete, and he came before Congress so many times before February 4th and then omitted this, he omitted something which was clearly relevant and important to the investigation,” Issa continued.
“As I said, I think the documents to us were highly relevant and important, which is why we spent so much time discussing them,” Horowitz said.
“You all have painted the picture quite accurately for us. I don’t think anybody up here likes the picture that we see,” Cummings said. “To be frank with you, knowing Eric Holder the way I know him, the honorable man he is, I don’t think he likes this picture.”
Cummings and Issa agreed to bring the I.G. back in mid-January for an accountability review.
But another thing Horowitz couldn’t answer is whether or not the U.S. was accountable to the Mexican government after sending guns over the border.
“Do you know when the Mexican government was informed about Fast and Furious? Or if they have been debriefed on it?” Gowdy asked. “Because I would imagine it could impact our relationship with law enforcement in Mexico.”
“I don’t know when they were debriefed and I don’t know the extent to which they were debriefed about it,” Horowitz said. “There were some indications in emails that we saw about the possibility of alerting the Mexican authorities, but I don’t know.”
“I look forward to the American people having an opportunity to read as much the material as can be made unsealed as possible,” Issa said. “I believe the American people and the Terry family have an absolute right to have as much transparency as possible.”