The undercover, gun-walking operation was called "Fast and Furious."
Now, some furious congressional investigators want to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for allegedly blocking their efforts to get the facts about the controversial operation - a charge the Justice Department "strongly disputes."
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government reform, today circulated the draft contempt order to his colleagues. It asks them to hold Holder in contempt for his alleged "failure to comply with a Congressional subpoena" in the "Fast and Furious" investigation.
"Fast and Furious" was a botched, undercover-operation run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) that resulted in assault weapons being 'walked' from American gun stores across the border into Mexico, and into the hands of alleged drug cartel members. ATF's plan was to use undercover "straw purchasers" to buy the guns, track their illegal movement into Mexico, then arrest the drug cartel members receiving and using the guns in criminal acts. But the agency lost track of many of the weapons and few arrests were made.
Issa's draft contempt citation against the attorney general charges that around 2,000 firearms fell into the hands of drug cartels and may have lead to the death of a U.S. Border Patrol agent as a result of Operation Fast and Furious. And he alleges that the Justice Department failed to provide many of the documents about the operation that the committee requested during its investigation.
In fact, firearms linked to the program were found at the site of the December 2011 shooting death of American Border Patrol agent Brian Terry. Terry's death helped spark the congressional investigation, and today Issa charged that Terry's family has suffered from the Justice Department's "painfully slow process of getting the truth." Issa also charged that the Justice Department has retaliated against ATF agents "who blew the whistle on gun-walking."
"The [Justice] Department's refusal to work with Congress … to compel the production of these documents and information related to this controversy is inexcusable and cannot stand." Issa wrote. "Those responsible for allowing Fast and Furious to proceed and those who are preventing the truth about the operation from coming out must be held accountable for their actions."
But a Department of Justice official strongly disputed the charge that the department has not complied with the committee's requests for documents and information, citing the turning over of more than 7,600 pages as part of 46 separate productions of documents. The official also pointed out that Attorney General Holder has testified to Congress on "Fast and Furious" seven times in the last year and a half, and Justice has provided many other officials to congressional investigators.
On Thursday evening the Justice Department formally responded to Issa's claims and threat to move forward with the contempt resolution.
"The department strongly disputes the contention that we have failed to cooperate with the committee's review of Operation Fast and Furious as asserted in the staff briefing paper and draft contempt of Congress resolution that the Committee released today." Deputy Attorney General James Cole wrote in a letter today.
"Some have questioned why the department's inspector general has received a greater number of documents than have been provided to the committee," Cole added. "The answer lies in the fact that the Office of Inspector General, as a component of the department, is entitled in these circumstances to review material that is not appropriate for disclosure outside the department."
As for documents the Justice Department has held back, the Justice Department official said they were "the type Justice Department's have historically not released because it would politicize or jeopardize ongoing criminal investigations and prosecutions."
The official added that both political parties have had existing policies that the Justice Department would not produce "internal, deliberative materials" not relevant to the investigation, or materials that occurred long after the operation had concluded.
But Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who is conducting the "Fast and Furious" investigation in the Senate, offered support for Issa's call for the attorney general to be cited for contempt of Congress.
"The subpoena authority of the House Oversight Committee, and the chairman's willingness to use it, helped shed light on Operation Fast and Furious and the Justice Department's desire to allow guns to walk into the hands of Mexican drug cartels," Grassley said in a statement. "Congressman Issa deserves credit for moving forward on contempt. The attorney general and the Justice Department are thumbing their nose at the constitutional authority provided to the legislative branch to conduct oversight."