Lawmaker circulates proposal to hold attorney general in contempt of Congress

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) circulated a proposal Thursday to hold Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt of Congress, accusing Holder of failing to cooperate with a congressional inquiry into the botched gun-trafficking operation called Fast and Furious.

Justice Department officials disputed the accusations, saying the department has been cooperating fully with the investigation, which was launched by Issa and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) a year and a half ago.

Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the Justice Department has provided about 7,000 pages of documents to Congress, while providing 80,000 pages to the department’s inspector general, who also is investigating the gun operation.

“For over a year the Department has issued false denials, given answers intended to misdirect investigators, sought to intimidate witnesses, unlawfully withheld subpoenaed documents, and waited to be confronted with indisputable evidence before acknowledging uncomfortable facts,” said Issa in a briefing paper and a 47-page draft contempt citation he sent to the members of the oversight committee.

James M. Cole, deputy attorney general, said in a statement Thursday that the department “strongly disputes the contention that we have failed to cooperate.”

Fast and Furious was run out of the Phoenix division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives between 2009 and January 2011. Federal agents targeting the Sinaloa Mexican drug cartel allowed more than 2,000 guns, suspected of being bought illegally, onto U.S. streets and into Mexico in the hopes that the firearms could be tied to gun trafficking and members of the cartel.

Two of the guns connected to the operation were found at a crime scene near Nogales, Ariz., where U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent Brian Terry was slain in December 2010.

The congressional investigation led to the resignation of the U.S. attorney for Arizona, and the reassignment of the head of ATF and many others in the agency.

Holder, who has said the ATF operation was “fundamentally flawed,” has testified about Fast and Furious seven times. He asked the department’s inspector general to conduct his own investigation, which is ongoing. And the department has made numerous senior officials available for testimony, interviews and briefings, a Justice official said.

In a letter to Issa last week, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich, citing long-standing executive branch policy, said it would be inappropriate for Justice to turn over certain documents to Congress because they include law enforcement information and grand jury transcripts. That material, Justice officials have said, can be submitted to the inspector general, who is part of the department.

A Justice official added that the contested documents include the type of information that administrations of both political parties historically have not released because “it would politicize and or jeopardize ongoing criminal investigations and prosecutions.”

In late January, on the eve of Holder’s appearance before the House oversight committee, Issa threatened to hold him in contempt if he did not turn over certain documents by Feb. 9. If the full House approved a contempt citation, it would be referred to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, an employee of the Justice Department, who would decide how to proceed.

Justice officials said they have provided or made available for review 7,600 pages of documents since last year.

Issa has insisted the committee is entitled to all the subpoenaed material.

On Thursday, Issa appeared on several TV interviews and circulated to committee members and reporters his draft resolution that Holder should be held in contempt “for failure to comply with a congressional subpoena.”

“The Attorney General is facing a real test of leadership here,” Grassley said in a statement Thursday. “He can force the department to come clean, or he can force a high-stakes political conflict between the legislative and executive branches.”

At the last hearing on Fast and Furious in February, Holder responded to similar accusations: “This has become political,” he said. “There is no attempt at any cover-up. We have shared huge amounts of information.”

Sari Horwitz covers the Justice Department and criminal justice issues nationwide for The Washington Post, where she has been a reporter for 30 years. Follow her @SariHorwitz.
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