Attorney General Eric Holder faced attacks on his character and tenure as attorney general at a congressional committee hearing on the gun program known as "Fast and Furious," which was run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Holder defended his record but the hearing yielded little information about the gun trafficking investigation. Instead, Republican members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee attacked Holder for previous testimony, his role in the pardoning of Marc Rich at the end of the Clinton administration and his decision to open a criminal investigation into torture by CIA operatives against terrorism detainees.
The House committee has been investigating the actions by ATF and Justice Department officials involving the gun trafficking case that resulted in about 2,000 guns being allowed to go to drug cartels and criminal groups in Mexico. The ATF operation took a tragic toll when two guns linked to the operation were found near slain U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry on Dec. 14, 2010.
A staff memo prepared by congressional investigators working for the committee with Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, released before the hearing offered a new detail about the ATF's failure to identify two targets in its gun trafficking case. However, the issue was glossed over by committee members in their questioning.
The report noted that one of the two members of a drug cartel had already been identified in a DEA wiretap log and was under investigation by the DEA and the FBI.
The report noted, "DEA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had jointly opened a separate investigation specifically targeting these two cartel associates. As early as mid-January 2010, both agencies had collected a wealth of information on these associates. Yet, ATF spent the next year engaging in the reckless tactics of Fast and Furious in attempting to identify them."
"During the course of this separate investigation, the FBI designated these two cartel associates as national security assets. In exchange for one individual's guilty plea to a minor count of 'Alien in Possession of a Firearm,' both became FBI informants and are now considered to be unindictable." the report said. "This means that the entire goal of Fast and Furious - to target these two individuals and bring them to justice - was a failure."
Holder faced some tough questioning about why the Justice Department has turned over only 6,400 pages of documents when the Justice Department inspector general has access to an estimated 80,000 pages of documents as part of the internal review.
"It appears as though we're being stonewalled, and there's something that's being hidden," said Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind.
Justice Department officials have said that the inspector general's review allows the internal DOJ investigators to have access to all grand jury materials and all unredacted documents such as wiretap transcripts.
"I've heard, you know, the magic word here, 'cover-up,' and I want to make clear that there is no attempt at any kind of cover-up. We have shared huge amounts of information. We will continue to share huge amounts of information," Holder said later in the hearing.
Holder faced a torrent of questions about his character and his time at the Justice Department.
Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, R-N.Y., asked Holder, "So let me ask it this way: How many more Border Patrol agents would have had to die as a part of Operation Fast and Furious for you to take responsibility?"
Holder bristled at the question telling the congresswoman, "You know, I mean, really, is that the way in which you want to be seen, you want to be known? You know, I should be held accountable for, certainly, my role in whatever I did or didn't do in connection with the supervision of Fast and Furious, but I'm attorney general of the United States and I should also be accountable and perhaps even given some credit - imagine that - given some credit for the things that this Justice Department has done under my leadership, whether it deals with national security, revitalized antitrust, revitalized civil rights enforcement effort. And so one has to balance all of these things.
"I get up every day and try to do the best job that I can. I have great faith in the people who work in the department. And, you know, that kind of question, I think, is, frankly - and again, respectfully - I think that's beneath a member of Congress," Holder said.
Although Issa tried to limit the scope of the hearing to only focus on Fast and Furious controversy, Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., blasted Holder for his handling of the Marc Rich pardon and for Holder's decision to reopen a criminal investigation into abuse and torture of terrorism detainees by CIA operatives and interrogators.
"Given the decision to almost engage in character assassination, I'm going to respond to at least some of that." Holder said. "I'm the attorney general of the United States. OK? And when it comes to deciding what I'm going to investigate, how I'm going to investigate, I take into account a wide variety of things. The decision I made to open up those CIA matters - and I was aware that this was something that was opposed by a great many people … that investigation has run its course. We are at a point where we are about to close those investigations."
Towards the end of the hearing, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, told Holder that he should resign and said, "You either lied or you were grossly incompetent in your actions when it came to finding out about Fast and Furious and your handling of this matter."
Labrador then showed the committee a series of statements Holder had made about the Marc Rich pardon, which drew the ire of a disgusted attorney general.
"That was among the worst things I think I've ever seen in Congress," Holder said, "You took a whole series of statements out of context, with no context."
Holder added, "The Marc Rich thing was considered in my confirmation, talked about it then. There is a whole bunch of things that I could say about what you just did, and maybe this is the way you do things, you know, in Idaho or wherever you're from. But understand something. What I've done - I'm proud of the work that I've done as attorney general of the United States. And looked at fairly- I think that I've done, you know, a pretty good job. Have I been perfect? No. Have I made mistakes? Yes. Do I treat the members of this committee with respect? I always hope that I do. And what you have just done is, if nothing else, disrespectful. And if you don't like me, that's one thing, but you should respect the fact that I hold an office that is deserving of respect. And, you know, maybe you're new to this committee. I don't know. I don't know how long you've been here. But my hope would be that, you know, we can get beyond that kind of interaction, that kind of treatment of a witness, whether it's me or somebody else, because I think in some ways what you did was fundamentally unfair, just not right."