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Issa Demands Justice Dept. Answer Project Gunrunner Subpoenas

Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, stopped just short of calling for the firing of both Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano on a California radio program Tuesday.

On The Roger Hedgecock Show, Issa discussed his committee’s investigation of Operation Gunrunner: an operation run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Department of Justice which allegedly allowed thousands of firearms across the border into Mexico. The guns ended up in the hands of drug cartels and were allegedly used in the murder of at least two American law enforcement agents: “Ultimately the Justice Department has to be asking questions about how they’re run,” Issa said on the program, adding that, with a campaign preparing to start, President Barack Obama needs to question if he has the right people heading DOJ and DHS.

According to a story originally broken by CBS News earlier this year, the operation was designed to allow “straw buyers” — who would purchase the weapons for someone else — to buy high quality weapons, including .50 caliber sniper rifles, from cooperating licensed dealers in the U.S. ATF would then track those weapons and hopefully take down the gun-running rings and perhaps the cartels as well. Said Issa:

This was an approved program designed to get not just the straw buyers but the bigger fish. It failed to get the bigger fish.

After learning of the program, Issa fired off subpoenas to DOJ to find out how ATF allowed the weapons — which were allegedly used to murder Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Officer Jaime Zapata — into the hands of criminals. To date he’s received no response, outside of a claim that responding would compromise an ongoing investigation – an assertion Issa said was absurd in an April 20 letter to ATF Acting Director Kenneth E. Melson:

The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform issued a subpoena to you on March 31, 2011. The subpoena instructed you to produce documents pertaining to Project Gunrunner and Operation Fast and Furious, conducted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). I wrote to you on April 11, 2011, to reiterate that, “[a]bsent a valid assertion of executive privilege over the materials sought, I expect you to produce the things identified in the March 31, 2011, subpoena’s schedule by the return date.” The April 13, 2011 deadline for compliance has passed without production of any documents …

Let me be clear. The Committee is not seeking these documents from the Department of Justice in furtherance of the prosecution of pending suits. Rather, we are seeking these documents in furtherance of the proper use of our constitutional authority. Sometimes, we may take a deferential approach to the Department when we are both investigating a third-party’s wrongdoing. Here, however, we are not conducting a concurrent investigation with the Department of Justice, but rather an independent investigation o/the Department of Justice specifically, of allegations that the reckless and inappropriate decisions of Department officials have created a serious public safety hazard. We are asking for documents that relate to decisions such officials made. Congress is legally entitled to all of these documents.

Issa told Hedgecock:

We’re not investigating the sale of guns across the border. We’re investigating the lack of judgment at the highest levels.

In the letter, Issa also stated that he would ask Congress to hold Melson in contempt if necessary, something he made clear in the radio interview he hoped would not need to happen:

Having contempt for what they’re doing and asking for contempt from Congress are two different things. We may not need it.

Issa also made clear he believed the lapses of judgment went further than just one office in Phoenix:

This goes all the way to the top. … If you made a decision this felony stupid you shouldn’t be making decisions any longer on behalf of the American people.