There were some moments of contentiousness, but it was still far short of the big fireworks that were expected when Atty. Gen. Eric Holder Jr. appeared before the Senate Judiciary at the Dirksen Office Building on the Hill to talk about ATF’s controversial Operation Fast and Furious — a program that encouraged Arizona gun dealers to sell to straw purchaser, with hopes of tracing the weapons to the Mexican cartels.
In other words, Holder took a few jab here and there, but didn’t walk away bloodied.
Republicans — particularly Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Ia.) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) were expected to grill Holder. Grassley did somewhat, and Cronyn did far more, pressing Holder on when he knew about the operation. But fireworks? Not really.
Democrats, seemed more sympathetic to Holder, and those like Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) appeared to give Holder a little cover, raising the point that the gun-walking had occurred under the Bush administration as well under “Operation Wide Receiver”, and they needed to look into that as well. Schumer suggested the probe lead by Republicans had been a little one sided.
Holder made statements insisting that he never mislead Congress as to what and when he knew about Fast and Furious. And he went on to remark:
“I want to be very clear: any instance of so-called “gun walking” is simply unacceptable,” Holder said in a statement. “Regrettably, this tactic was used as part of Fast and Furious, which was launched to combat gun trafficking and violence on our Southwest Border. This operation was flawed in its concept, and flawed in its execution. And, unfortunately, we will feel the effects for years to come as guns that were lost during this operation continue to show up at crimes scenes both here and in Mexico.
“This should never have happened. And it must never happen again.”
Cornyn, aided by big bold graphics, pressed Holder, pointing out that internal Justice Department memos about gun walking were addressed to Holder. But Holder insisted, as he has before, that he didn’t see those memos and that staff read them and made a determination whether to brief him.
Cornyn also asked if Holder had ever apologozied to the family of Border Agent Brian Terry, who was killed last year near the Arizona border. Two guns from Operation Fast and Furious were found at the scene, but it was never determined whether the weapons were used in the murder.
“I have not apologized to them,” said Holder. “I certainly regret what happened to Agent Terry. I can only imagine the pain that his family has had to deal with….We are not programmed to bury our kids. It pains me whenever there is the death of a law enforcement official, especially under the circumstances. It is not fair, however, to assume that the mistakes that happened in Fast and Furious directly led to the death of Agent Terry.”
Cornyn also pressed Holder, asking him to name one person who has paid for the mistakes of Operation Fast and Furious. Holder said that the head of ATF had been replaced and the U.S. Attorney in Arizona had stepped down and others would pay if a pending Inspector General investigation shows they should.
In his opening statement Tuesday, Sen. Grassley took aim at Holder, saying: “Just over nine months ago Attorney General Holder sat in my office. After discussing a number of items with him, I handed him two letters I had written to the Acting Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), Kenneth Melson. A member of my staff briefly outlined the allegations contained therein that had come to us from an ATF whistleblower.”
“My letters mentioned: (1) the death of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, (2) the allegation that ATF had sanctioned the sale of hundreds of assault weapons to straw buyers, (3) the allegation that two of those weapons had been found at the scene of Agent Terry’s death, and (4) the allegation that the whistleblowers who provided this information were already facing retaliation.”
“Just four days later, I received a response back from the Justice Department. That response explicitly stated that the whistleblower allegations were “false” and that “ATF makes every effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico.”
In response, Holder apologized for the letter, saying at the time, the people who wrote it believed those were the facts. He acknowledged it was wrong and there was an effort to find out where along the chain someone provided erroneous information.
Holder later went on to say that the finger pointing and probing ” in some ways is a bit of a distraction that does nothing to what concerns us most and that is the flow of weapons from the United States across the southwest border.”
He also said of Fast and Furious: “I think I acted in a responsible way.”