AG Holder Issues Fiery Response to Critics on ATF Gun Operation

ABC News’ Jason Ryan and Pierre Thomas report:

Attorney General Eric Holder accused congressional Republicans of “irresponsible and inflammatory rhetoric” over claims that he misled Congress when he was questioned earlier this year about a botched  Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms operation that resulted in guns flowing into Mexico.

“I have not spoken at length on this subject out of deference to the review being conducted, at my request, by our Department’s Inspector General,” Holder wrote in a fiery letter to the chairmen of three congressional committees Friday afternoon.  “However, in the past few days, the public discourse concerning these issues has become so base and so harmful to interests that I hope we all share that I must now address these issues notwithstanding the Inspector General’s ongoing review.”

On Thursday, the House Oversight and  Government Reform Committee released a series of Justice Department memos sent to  Holder about the gun trafficking investigation known as Fast and Furious.

The operation took a tragic toll in December 2010, when two weapons found on the scene where border patrol agent Brian Terry was murdered were linked to the ATF program. Other weapons from the program have been linked to a slew of crimes in Arizona and Mexico.

The controversy that boiled to a head this week centers on testimony Holder provided to the House Judiciary Committee on 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.”

When the briefing memos were released Thursday showing that Holder had been sent memos going back to July 2010 on the program, Republican members of Congress tore into the Holder.

“Attorney General Holder has failed to give Congress and the American people an honest account of what he and other senior Justice Department officials knew about gunwalking and Operation Fast and Furious,” Rep. Issa said. ” The lack of candor and honesty from our nation’s chief law enforcement officials in this matter is deeply disturbing.”

Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, called on Holder to resign.

On Wednesday, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., told the publication the Daily Caller, “When you facilitate that and a murder or a felony occurs, you’re called an accessory. That means that there’s criminal activity.”

The comment raised Holder’s ire. He wrote to the members of the oversight committees, “I simply cannot sit idly by as a Majority Member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform suggests, as happened this week, that law enforcement and government employees who devote their lives to protecting our citizens be considered ‘accessories to murder.’  Such irresponsible and inflammatory rhetoric must be repudiated in the strongest possible terms. Those who serve in the ranks of law enforcement are our Nation’s heroes and deserve our Nation’s thanks, not the disrespect that is being heaped on them by those who seek political advantage.  I trust you feel similarly and I call on you to denounce these statements.

“Much has been made in the past few days about my congressional testimony earlier this year regarding Fast and Furious,” he added. “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.  I understand that they have also told Congress that they never briefed me or other Department leadership on the misguided tactics that were used in Fast and Furious.”

“In the past few days,” he said, “some have pointed to documents that we provided to Congress as evidence that I was familiar with Fast and Furious earlier than I have testified.  That simply is not the case and those suggestions mischaracterize the process by which I receive information concerning the activities of the Department’s many components.  On a weekly basis, my office typically receives over a hundred pages of so-called “weekly reports” that, while addressed to me, actually are provided to and reviewed by members of my staff and the staff of the Office of the Deputy Attorney General.

“The weekly reports contain short summaries of matters that the agencies deem of interest that week,” he wrote. “Sometimes, the summaries are simply a sentence-long and other times they consist of a paragraph.  In some cases, the summaries are of policy-related issues or upcoming events.  In other cases, the summaries are brief, high-level reviews of pending matters or investigations.

“As I have said, the fact that even a single gun was not interdicted in this operation and found its way to Mexico is unacceptable,” he said. “Equally unacceptable, however, is the fact that too many in Congress are opposed to any discussion of fixing loopholes in our laws that facilitate the staggering flow of guns each year across our border to the south.  I cannot help but note that at the same time that some members of Congress understandably criticize the Fast and Furious operation, they vehemently refuse to consider whether ATF has the resources and legal tools it needs to do its job – tools that would be entirely consistent with the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens.

“Until we move beyond the current political climate – where real solutions take a back seat to both political posturing and making headlines on cable news programs, and is deemed more important than actually solving our country’s difficult challenges — nothing is going to change,” Holder concluded in the 5-page letter. ”I hope we can engage in a more responsible dialogue on this subject in the future.  There is much we all need to do together to stop gun violence on both sides of the border and make our Nation safer.”

After reviewing the letter, Frederick Hill a spokesman for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said, “If Attorney General Holder had said these things five months ago when Congress asked him about Operation Fast and Furious, it might have been more believable.  At this point, however, it’s hard to take at face value a defense that is factually questionable, entirely self-serving, and a still incomplete account of what senior Justice Department officials knew about gun walking.”