Column: We Didn’t Learn Much New from the Hearing on Controversial ATF Program

Allan Lengel
By Allan Lengel

We’re supposed to learn something from Congressional hearings.

I’m not sure we learned all that much on Monday when Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, held a hearing  with legal experts to determine what the committee  can demand from ATF and the Justice Department in terms of documents and information on “Operation Fast and Furious”  through the use of subpoenas, contempt or requests.

Essentially, we learned that yes (we already knew this) a Congressional oversight committee has the right to demand information from the Justice Department and ATF on the program, which encouraged Arizona gun dealers to sell weapons to  straw purchasers — all with the hope of tracing those weapons to the Mexican cartels.  Unfortunately, authorities say some of those weapons ended up being used in crimes,  including in the murder of border agent Brian Terry.

Experts told us  Monday it helped if the committee demands for information were bipartisan; that the committee should talk, demand and negotiate for documents, but be careful as not to screw up any pending investigations. Experts warned it was better to press, but avoid if possible, holding ATF and Justice in contempt, if only to avoid long, drawn out battles.

“This is not a love-making process,”  Charles Tiefer, former counsel to Congress, emphasized during testimony. In other words, Congress doesn’t have to play too nice.

Rep. Issa already knew that. But he’s very very frustrated.

“The administration has not yet to come to recognize the role this committee plays in preserving the rule of law to eliminate waste and fraud and abuse in the federal government,” Rep. Issa said during the hearing. “I’ve worked closely with Sen. Chuck Grassley to get to the bottom of the strategy by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to allow heavy duty arms to traffic into the hands of Mexican drug cartels.

“ATF field agents opposed this reckless program, which has been responsible for the deaths of innocent civilians in Mexico and even responsible for the death of a 40-year-old border patrol agent named Brian Terry.”

In the end, we need to know a few things:  How was such a poorly thought out program approved and by who? And how many guns were released and how many ended up being used in crimes, including murder?

It’s hard to believe the Justice Department hasn’t yet coughed up that info. Finding out which crimes are linked to the program may take a fair amount of investigative work — something that can’t be produced in a little hearing.  And there may be no way of definitively figuring out every crime. Still,  investigators can come up with a snapshot.

But finding out who ultimately approved the program ain’t that hard. Really.

Give me a few hours. Let me  wander  the inner sanctum of the Justice Department on Pennsylvania Avenue  and I’ll come up with some answers and eliminate some of these hearings.

Sure, Monday’s hearing  may lay the foundation for the committee to get even tougher.

But there’s got to be an easier way to find the truth from an organization called “Justice.”

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