WASHINGTON (AP) - Attorney General Eric Holder said Friday that his testimony to Congress about a controversial gun-smuggling probe was truthful and accurate and that Republicans are engaging in political posturing when they say otherwise.
In his most forceful criticism of Republicans during his time as attorney general, Holder said that he had said little so far about the gun-smuggling probe because the Justice Department inspector general is investigating it but that he could not sit idly by while a Republican congressman suggested that law enforcement and government employees be considered accessories to murder.
Key Republicans say the attorney general knew many months earlier than he has admitted that the gun-smuggling probe by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives involved agents letting guns pass from small-time straw purchasers to arms traffickers.
"I have no recollection of knowing about" the operation, called 'Fast and Furious,' or of hearing its name prior to the public controversy about it," Holder said in a letter to key Republican and Democratic members of Congress who oversee Justice Department issues.
He said that before early this year, "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."
He was referring to the tactic known as "letting guns walk" from stores with suspected straw purchasers, rather than seizing them there, in an effort to track them to gun-running kingpins, who had escaped charges in the past.
Operation Fast and Furious came to light after two assault rifles purchased by a now-indicted small-time buyer under scrutiny in the operation turned up at a shootout in Arizona where Customs and Border Protection agent Brian Terry was killed.
In regard to Terry's death, Rep. Paul Gosar, an Arizona Republican, said that "we're talking about consequences of criminal activity, where we actually allowed guns to walk into the hands of criminals." He said that "when you facilitate that and a murder or a felony occurs, you're called an accessory."
Holder said that "such irresponsible and inflammatory rhetoric must be repudiated in the strongest possible terms."
The attorney general noted that the flawed tactics employed in Fast and Furious "were actually employed in an investigation conducted during the prior administration. Regardless, those tactics should never again be adopted in any investigation." Holder was referring to Operation Wide Receiver under the Bush administration, in which ATF ran an operation that allowed hundreds of guns to be transferred to suspected arms traffickers.
This week, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that is looking into Fast and Furious, said Holder had to have known about the operation from weekly written reports he received back in July 2010. House Judiciary Committee chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, called on President Barack Obama to direct the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel to investigate.
Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Holder was less than candid in testimony to Congress. In response to Holder's letter, Grassley spokeswoman Beth Levine said that the goals of the senator's investigation of Fast and Furious have been "to find out who approved a stupid program and to make sure it never happened again." She said the Justice Department had stonewalled Grassley's investigation and denied him access to documents and key personnel. The recently released documents "have convinced me that" the attorney general "is either lying or grossly incompetent," said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, encouraged Holder to "come up to the Hill and clear this up as soon as possible."
The weekly reports cover dozens of investigations and some mentioned Fast and Furious but did not outline the tactics it used.
The president said he has complete confidence in Holder and said he has complete confidence as well in the investigation by the Justice Department inspector general's office into who, in fact, was responsible for the decision to allow guns to move through an illicit network and into the hands of criminals.
Officials say that ATF agents lost track of about 1,400 of more than 2,000 guns identified in the operation. A number of the guns have been recovered at crime scenes in Mexico.