The Operation Fast and Furious scandal is back in the news, as is Attorney General Eric Holder’s stonewalling of Congress’s valid investigation into the scandal – stonewalling that may cause him to be charged with criminal contempt.
As you may recall, Operation Fast and Furious was an Obama Administration plan executed from 2009 to 2010 by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Contrary to the core mission of the ATF, DOJ and ATF leadership allowed about 2,000 guns to be smuggled from the United States into Mexico and to be distributed to Mexican drug cartels. While running the operation, DOJ and ATF leadership did not disclose the operation to their personnel in Mexico or to Mexican government officials.
The alleged purpose behind Operation Fast and Furious was to track the weapons, arrest members of the cartels, and dismantle the cartels. That never happened. Instead, the smuggled guns wound up being used by the criminals and have exacerbated the violence and deaths in Mexico. The guns were also connected with the December 2010 death of Brian Terry, a United States Border Patrol Agent, who was killed in Arizona. DOJ and ATF cannot account for hundreds of the guns they permitted to be placed into the hands of Mexican drug cartel members; those guns will continue to be used in criminal activity, both in Mexico and in the United States, for years to come.
The scandal became public in early 2011 after the death of Agent Terry, which brought the operation to a close.
A joint congressional investigation began soon thereafter and still continues to examine exactly what happened during Operation Fast and Furious. The investigation is led by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by Darrell Issa (R-CA), and Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-IA).
So far, the Oversight Committee has held hearings, received testimony, issued reports, and served subpoenas, including one served on Holder in October 2011 seeking, in part, documents concerning who at DOJ approved the tactics used in Operation Fast and Furious.
To date, Holder has refused to turn over all the subpoenaed documents, despite continuing efforts by the Oversight Committee to acquire them and to accommodate any valid interests of Holder and DOJ.
Holder and DOJ’s obstruction of the investigation caused Oversight Committee Chairman Issa to send a letter to the other Oversight Committee members on May 3, 2012, outlining the failure by Holder and DOJ to cooperate with the investigation fully. The letter explains the various issues the Committee may consider at an upcoming meeting to decide whether to hold Holder in contempt of Congress.
The Oversight Committee voting on a contempt citation would be the first step by that Committee in the process to charge Holder with criminal contempt. If the Committee votes in favor of the citation, then the matter goes to the entire House of Representatives. Attached to Issa’s letter is a forty-four page draft contempt report, which details the evidence against Holder for the full House to consider.
Should the House issue a contempt citation, the matter then goes to the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia who is obligated to bring the matter before a grand jury to consider the filing of criminal charges against Holder.
If Holder is convicted of criminal contempt, he faces a fine and up to one year in prison.
Although no contempt citation has yet been issued, members of Congress are currently moving in that direction because Holder does not appear willing to turn over the subpoenaed documents.
On May 17, 2012, six freshman members of the House Judiciary Committee sent a letter to the House leadership (Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA)) urging them to have the entire House vote on whether or not Holder should be held in contempt for thwarting the investigation into Operation Fast and Furious. They note that Holder has refused to turn over subpoenaed documents, has given inaccurate testimony to Congress during the investigation, and is attempting to shield himself and other high level officials from accountability.
This past Friday, May 18, the House leadership, along with Oversight Committee Chairman Issa, sent Holder a letter giving him an additional chance to comply with the subpoena. The letter notes that they are unaware of any assertions by Holder of the executive privilege, or of any national security concerns or diplomatic sensitivities that would prevent him from turning over the requested documents. The letter goes on to explain that if Holder does not comply with the subpoena, “the House will act to fulfill our Constitutional obligations in the coming weeks,” which appears to be a veiled threat that the House will vote on whether Holder should be held in contempt.
We will know more about Holder’s fate as the next weeks unfold. If Congress holds him in contempt, it will be because of his own doing. To avoid a contempt charge, Holder should comply with the subpoena and fully cooperate with the investigation. President Obama, Holder’s boss, should order him to do so now. The investigation can then proceed to a proper conclusion. Those in this country and in Mexico, especially the families of the people killed by the guns, can then get answers to their questions about this reckless Obama Administration operation. And those who are responsible for the operation, along with those who condoned it, can be held accountable.