Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. confronted a week of allegations that he had misled Congress about his knowledge of the failed Fast and Furious gun-tracking program, lashing out at his Republican critics and contending that he knew nothing about secret tactics to allow illegal arms sales on the Southwest border.
Holder said in an angry five-page letter that reports to his office mentioning the operation never discussed tactics and generally were provided as updates on law enforcement efforts around the country. But Holder, breaking his silence after months of trying to remain above the divisive allegations over who knew what about the operation, took his biggest swipe at congressional Republicans.
He said he was prompted to speak out because he "simply cannot sit idly by." He said he had remained silent because his inspector general's office was investigating the matter. But, Holder added, "in the past few days, the public discourse concerning these issues has become so base and so harmful."
The letter was a sign the normally even-tempered Holder had had enough of Republican criticism and suggested his Department of Justice wanted to seize the upper hand in the continuing controversy, on which President Obama commented Thursday.
The letter was primarily directed at Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Since early last year they have led the GOP's investigation into Fast and Furious.
Less than half an hour after Holder's letter was released, Issa's office responded.
"If Atty. Gen. Holder had said these things five months ago when Congress asked him about Operation Fast and Furious, it might have been more believable," said Frederick R. Hill, the House committee's spokesman. "At this point, however, it's hard to take at face value a defense that is factually questionable, entirely self-serving, and a still incomplete account of what senior Justice Department officials knew about gun walking."
Fast and Furious, which began in Phoenix in the fall of 2009, allowed the illegal sale of more than 2,000 firearms with the expectation the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives would track the guns to Mexican drug cartels. Most of the guns were lost. Two showed up at the site in Arizona where a U.S. Border Patrol agent was killed; more were recovered at 170 crime scenes in Mexico.
Some GOP lawmakers suggested that Holder be tried for perjury for testifying in May that he had only recently learned of Fast and Furious. Others have said that some Justice Department officials should be prosecuted as accomplices to murder.
But Holder said his testimony was in response to when he learned of the undercover tactics. "I certainly never knew about the tactics employed in the operation," he said.