While House Republicans gear up to grill Attorney General Eric Holder about what-he-knew-when about ATF’s botched Operation Fast and Furious at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday, the White House is signaling they’re standing by the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
“As the President has made clear, he believes Eric Holder is an excellent Attorney General who has his full confidence,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in a statement to TPM on Wednesday.
In case you’re just joining us, a recap. Fast and Furious was an operation run out of the Arizona field division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Agents told gun dealers to let individuals they thought were “straw purchasers” for Mexican drug cartels buy semi-automatic weapons even if they were suspicious of their intentions.
The plan was to let those guns “walk” to figure out where they ended up and be able to take down some kingpins in the gun smuggling ring (Unlike with handguns, federally licensed firearms dealers aren’t required to report the purchase of multiple “long guns” by a single individual to the ATF, so it’s tough for them to get leads unless gun dealers are proactive. The Obama administration has since instituted a rule requiring dealers to report the sales of multiple long guns to ATF, but only in the four border states.)
All in all, around 2,000 weapons “walked.” Many of them ended up at crime scenes in Mexico. Two were found at the murder scene of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
That’s where Congress comes in. Whistleblowers in ATF brought their concerns to the attention of Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, and he wrote a letter to DOJ in late January, 2011. There’s been a drip, drip, drip of Fast and Furious materials ever since as Grassley and House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa have investigated (Issa’s spokesman told the Daily Caller on Thursday that the chairman of the Oversight Committee would “on the need to clean house” during the hearing.)
Documents have show that officials within the Criminal Division at “Main Justice” — DOJ headquarters in Washington, D.C. — were aware that the “gun walking” tactic was used during the Bush administration because they were prosecuting a case that had languished for years. U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona Dennis Burke resigned and former acting ATF Director Ken Melson was reassigned as were plenty of other ATF officials who had knowledge of the gun walking tactics.
On Wednesday, Grassley called on Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, who heads DOJ’s Criminal Division, to step down because he knew of the Bush-era “gun walking” even though DOJ denied in a Feb. 4, 2011 letter that ATF would ever walk guns. A Justice Department spokeswoman said Holder is standing by Breuer.
“Assistant Attorney General Breuer has acknowledged his mistake in not making - and therefore not alerting Department leadership to - a connection between the allegations made about Operation Fast and Furious and the unacceptable tactics used years earlier in Operation Wide Receiver,” Tracy Schmaler said in a statement. “He has acknowledged that mistake to Congress and to the Attorney General, who continues to have confidence in Assistant Attorney General’s Breuer ability to lead the Criminal Division.”
Holder has accused politicians of playing “gotcha” games, called Fast and Furious “flawed in concept, as well as in execution” and accused Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller of being “behind” the calls for his resignation because they’ve been running a nearly daily tally of Republican congressman who have asked for him to step down.
According to the Daily Caller’s count, 52 Republican members of Congress and two Republican Senators are calling on Holder to step down, though there’s been no evidence presented so far that shows he knew about the tactics used in Fast and Furious before whistleblowers went public (he also doesn’t recall hearing about the existence of the operation itself, though some weekly briefings documents addressed to him mention it in passing). The GOP presidential field has also entered the fray, with four of them (Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann and Jon Huntsman) calling for him to step aside.
The latest signal from the White House: ain’t gonna happen.
“The Attorney General has said repeatedly that fighting criminal activity along the Southwest Border - including the illegal trafficking of guns to Mexico has been and is a top priority of the Department,” Schultz said in a statement to TPM. “The Attorney General has also made clear that he takes the allegations that have been raised about the operation very seriously and that is why he asked the Inspector General to investigate the matter and directed the issuance of policy guidance clarifying DOJ policy against gunwalking.”
TPM will have coverage of the House Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday morning.