Rep. Darrell Issa’s drive to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt is “unwarranted,” “unprecedented” and “ill-advised,” a top Justice Department official said in a letter to the California Republican, who is chair of the House Oversight Committee, on Tuesday.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole also wrote that the committee’s “core questions” on the flawed gun trafficking operation known as Fast and Furious “have been answered.”
Cole suggested that the lack of documents showing high-level discussions about the tactics used in Fast and Furious show the problem grew out of offices in Arizona and that top Obama administration were not aware that ATF agents were telling gun shop dealers to sell large quantities of weapons to individuals they suspected were “straw purchasers” for Mexican drug cartels.
“Far from reflecting a ‘cover-up,’ as some have claimed, the lack of documents makes clear that these tactics had their origin in the field in Arizona and not among Department leaders in Washington,” Cole wrote.
“The record makes clear that Department leadership was unaware of the inappropriate tactics used in Fast and Furious until allegations about those tactics were made public in early 2011,” Cole wrote.
Some Republican members of the House have suggested the Obama administration purposefully allowed guns to “walk” and wind up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels in an effort to create enough political will to enact gun-control measures.
Issa released a draft contempt resolution earlier this month that charges Holder should be held in contempt for failing to properly respond to Issa’s subpoena, but he’s reportedly faced opposition from within his own party. Politico reported that House Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy decided to slow Issa’s push over concerns about the optics of holding the attorney general in contempt during an election year.
As Cole writes, Issa’s contempt proceeding would be unprecedented even outside of election season.
“Congress has never held an Attorney General in contempt based on a failure to provide documents relating to open criminal investigations and prosecutions,” Cole wrote.
“We readily acknowledge that, like our predecessors in Administrations of both parties, we have protected documents where we have believed that their disclosure would jeopardize the independence, integrity, and effectiveness of our continuing law enforcement efforts,” he wrote.
Cole wrote that the Justice Department is “absolutely committed to bringing the killers of Brian Terry and Jaime Zapata to justice” and successfully prosecuting cases related to Fast and Furious.
“We know that the Committee shares these goals and we ask that the Committee work with us to ensure that we are able to hold accountable those who violate the law,” Cole wrote to Issa.
Late update: Issa spokesman Frederick Hill responds:
Instead of providing straightforward and fact based answers, the Justice Department continues to distort the outstanding questions about reckless conduct in Operation Fast and Furious. While the Committee has subpoenaed documents that address what senior officials were told about controversial gunwalking tactics during Operation Fast and Furious, the Justice Department pointedly refuses to provide them or to deny that senior officials were given information in the course of the Operation indicating the existence of reckless tactics. Instead, the Justice Department merely restates that certain officials have indicated that they personally did not inform senior officials. Rather than agreeing to provide documents that include details about officials calling ATF whistleblowers liars and retaliating against them, the Department seems to believe a recounting of the Department’s public positions on Operation Fast and Furious over a ten month period is a sufficient response. This response fails to provide critical details about unacceptable behavior by senior officials toward whistleblowers and how the Department reversed course from indicating that whistleblowers were lying to acknowledging they were right. If the Justice Department seeks to avoid contempt, it knows the questions for which it owes the American people answers.
Cole’s letter to Issa is embedded below.