Pressure piled on Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. as he faced a barrage of questions Tuesday about his knowledge of a federal gun-trafficking sting that allowed more than 2,000 weapons to be sold illegally and why the Justice Department gave inaccurate information to Congress on its connection to the killing of a federal agent.
At a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Republican lawmakers quizzed Holder on when he first learned of Operation Fast and Furious, a now-defunct program aimed at tracking guns sold in the U.S. to Mexican drug cartels. They cited memos sent to Holder's office and emails showing that other top Justice Department officials had received at least partial briefings. They noted inaccurate statements Justice Department officials initially made to Congress.
"Who will be held accountable?" asked Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the committee.
Although they had planned to follow the weapons to the cartels after their sale to "straw purchasers," agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives lost track of many of the guns. Nearly 200 of them later showed up at crime scenes in Mexico. Two were recovered at the scene of the shooting of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in Arizona in December.
Holder said he and other top officials knew nothing of the specific Fast and Furious tactic — a practice known as gun walking — until ATF whistle-blowers went public this year.
While declaring the operation "flawed in its concept and flawed in its execution," Holder took no responsibility for it. He said he would await the findings of an inspector general investigation before acting against any officials involved. Asked to cite a mistake he had made, he demurred.
"As I look at the information as it was brought to me, I think that I acted in a responsible way by ordering the inspector general investigation, by issuing the directive to the field," he said.
Asked by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) if he had apologized to Terry's family, Holder said he had not and that he regretted the agent's death.
"It pains me whenever there is the death of a law enforcement official, especially under the circumstances that this occurred," Holder said. "It is not fair, however, to assume that the mistakes that happened in Fast and Furious directly led to the death of Agent Terry."
Holder did concede missteps in handling the fallout. He walked back previous testimony in which he said he had learned of the operation in the weeks leading up to a May 3 hearing. He learned of the details of the operation and first heard the name Fast and Furious at the beginning of the year, he said.
"I did say a few weeks. I probably could have said a couple of months," he said.
He acknowledged that a Feb. 4 letter to Grassley's office contained inaccurate information. The letter, signed by Assistant Atty. Gen. Ronald Weich, claimed that the operation did not involve gun-walking. "ATF makes every effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico," it read.
"There was information that was inaccurate. The letter could have been better crafted. I regret that," Holder said, adding that the letter was written in good faith with "information they thought was accurate."
Republicans sought to connect Holder's inner circle to the operation. Grassley's office on Tuesday released an email sent to then-Deputy Atty. Gen. Gary Grindler three days after Terry's death. The email from Brad Smith, counsel to the deputy attorney general, noted that two weapons recovered at the scene had been linked to one of the straw purchasers investigated in the operation. The email did not mention the controversial tactic involved.
Holder said Grindler, now the attorney general's chief of staff, did not mention the connection in the weeks after Terry's death.
Republicans on the committee also noted a series of memos sent to Holder's office between March and November 2010 that make reference to the operation — although they provide little detail on the tactics being used. Holder said his staff never showed him the documents.
"There is nothing in any of those memos that indicates any of those inappropriate tactics that are of concern," Holder said. "Those things were not brought to my attention, and my staff, I think, made the correct decision in that regard."