NRA Turns Up Heat on Attorney General Holder for ATF Controversy

Jason Ryan, Jack Cloherty and Pierre Thomas report:

The National Rifle Association is turning up the heat on Attorney General Eric Holder, running television ads charging that he committed perjury in congressional testimony about the controversial “Fast and Furious” undercover, gun-running operation.  The ad calls on President Obama to fire Holder.

Things could get even hotter for the attorney general Tuesday, when he returns to Congress to be questioned again about Fast and Furious.

The NRA ad is the latest salvo in a battle between critics in Congress and the Justice Department on the controversial “gun-walking” operation.  Run by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), Fast and Furious involved tracking weapons sold to straw purchasers, who then passed the guns along to their hidden buyers in the Mexican drug cartels.

Hundreds of guns flowed into Mexico under the program, while ATF agents watched and did nothing.  The ATF says it hoped to track the guns to their ultimate destination, and then make arrests. Instead, many of the guns were used in crimes, including one that was used in the murder of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.

The controversy has focused on testimony Holder provided to the House Judiciary Committee May 3, 2011. During that hearing, Rep. Darell Issa, R-Calif., who is spearheading the congressional investigation, asked Holder, “When did you first know about the program officially, I believe, called Fast and Furious? To the best of your knowledge, what date?”

Holder answered: “I’m not sure of the exact date, but I probably heard about Fast and Furious for the first time over the last few weeks.”

The House Oversight and  Government Reform Committee released last month a series of Justice Department memos sent to Holder’s office going back to July 2010, that made reference about the gun trafficking investigation being run out of Arizona. 

Justice Department officials say the memos are only generic updates and offer no detail or specifics of ATF strategies to allow the guns to pass in large numbers.

A paragraph in a July 5, 2010, weekly update briefing to the attorney general makes broad reference to Fast and Furious but makes no reference to the specific tactics used. “This investigation, initiated in September 2009 in conjunction with the Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Phoenix Police Department, involves a Phoenix-based firearms trafficking ring headed by Manuel Celis-Acosta. Celis-Acosta and [redacted] straw purchasers are responsible for the purchase of 1,500 firearms that were then supplied to Mexican drug trafficking cartels.”

Holder has stood by his previous statements, writing to members of Congress Oct.  7, “Much has been made in the past few days about my congressional testimony earlier this year regarding Fast and Furious.  My testimony was truthful and accurate and I have been consistent on this point throughout.  I have no recollection of knowing about Fast and Furious or of hearing its name prior to the public controversy about it.

“Prior to early 2011, I certainly never knew about the tactics employed in the operation and it is my understanding that the former United States Attorney for the District of Arizona and the former Acting Director and Deputy Director of ATF have told Congress that they, themselves, were unaware of the tactics employed,” Holder wrote.

In prepared testimony released Monday evening, Holder reiterates previous comments about the flawed operation in a statement, asserting, “This operation was flawed in concept, as well as in execution.  And, unfortunately, we will feel its effects for years to come as guns that were lost during this operation continue to show up at crimes scenes both here and in Mexico.  This should never have happened.  And it must never happen again.” The investigation into Fast and Furious has also revealed previous instances of guns going into Mexico from other ATF operations in Arizona. Operation “Wide Receiver” pre-dated Fast and Furious and spans back to March 2006 during the Bush administration. The ATF and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Arizona were investigating a gun trafficking case but did not press charges until the Justice Department’s Criminal Division Gang Unit moved forward with the case in 2009 and moved to bring indictments in 2010.

As Wide Receiver moved closer toward indictment, Justice Department officials in the Criminal Division noted serious concerns about ATF’s tactics in the case by letting guns into Mexico.

Lanny Breuer, the assistant attorney general for the Criminal Division, said last week he made mistakes after being briefed last year about Wide Receiver but says he never raised the issue of the gun tactics to Holder or the deputy attorney general.

“I wish that at that time that I had said clearly to the deputy attorney general and the  attorney general that in this case, Wide Receiver, we had determined  that in 2006 and 2007, guns had walked,” Breuer said, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee Nov. 1. ”I did not do that, and I regret not doing that.

“At the time, I thought that, dealing with the leadership of ATF was sufficient and reasonable,” Breuer said.

The Justice Department’s inspector general, at Holder’s request, is investigating Fast and Furious. Sen. Patrick Leah, D-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has also asked the inspector general to review Operation Wide Receiver.

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