House Republicans threatened Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. with a criminal contempt of Congress citation Thursday, alleging the Justice Department has refused for a year to turn over key documents in lawmakers' investigation of the failed Fast and Furious gun-tracking operation.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, told Holder in a Capitol Hill hearing that the Justice Department had provided only 6,400 pages of "heavily redacted" documents of about 93,000 that the committee sought.
Issa said he and his Republican colleagues believed that Justice Department officials were suppressing evidence that they approved the gun-walking tactics used in the operation, which ultimately allowed hundreds of weapons to flow from the U.S. to violent Mexican drug cartels.
"All these people should be ashamed that they didn't do as good a job as they should have," Issa said.
The operation along the Southwest border in Arizona permitted illegal gun purchases in the hope that agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives could track the weapons to cartel leaders. Instead, about 1,700 guns were lost. Scores turned up at crime scenes in Mexico, and two were recovered after a U.S. Border Patrol agent was killed south of Tucson.
Holder testified that his department was trying to cooperate with the congressional investigation. He said the Justice Department's staff had responded to three dozen letters from members of Congress and had "facilitated numerous witness interviews."
"This has been a significant undertaking for department employees, and our efforts in this regard remain ongoing," Holder said. "There is no attempt at any kind of a cover-up."
Should the Issa committee follow through, the panel would hold hearings or simply vote on a resolution to find Holder and possibly other Justice Department officials in contempt. The full House would then consider the matter.
If the House agreed, the resolution would be sent to the U.S. attorney's office in Washington, and he would be directed to bring a criminal indictment. But because the U.S. attorney serves under Holder, some other special prosecutor might be chosen to handle the matter.
It can be a long process, and it would have to be decided by Congress before the congressional session ends at the close of this year.
One Republican Capitol Hill official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter, said: "We are serious. This investigation has been very, very legitimate."
Another, however, predicted an agreement before it progressed to a full House vote. "I don't think Justice will let it get to that point," he said. "I think Justice will try to litigate it first."
The Republican committee members indicated they were leaning toward a contempt citation based on their belief that the Justice Department had "much greater knowledge of, and involvement in, Fast and Furious than it has previously acknowledged."
They said committee interviews, documents and emails showed that in one instance, then-ATF Acting Director Kenneth E. Melson told Assistant Atty. Gen. Lanny A. Breuer that the ATF wanted to launch a "different approach" for stopping U.S. guns from getting into Mexico, and that Breuer responded in an email that it was a "terrific idea."
Republicans also are concerned that Patrick J. Cunningham, who ran the criminal division of the U.S. attorney's office in Phoenix and oversaw Fast and Furious, has resigned and is refusing to cooperate with the committee. Cunningham has invoked the 5th Amendment against self-incrimination.
Democrats on the committee, who conducted their own investigation, said they found no evidence that Holder or other Justice Department officials oversaw or approved of Fast and Furious.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the panel, said they found "no evidence indicating that the attorney general authorized gun walking."
He said the Issa inquiry was "more like an election-year witch hunt than an even-handed investigation."
But Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), a former committee chairman, did not back down. "You're hiding something here," he told Holder. "You ought to give us the documents."
Holder said his department's review of the material so far had shown that much of it was "not relevant, or protected by grand jury secrecy rules." Regarding Cunningham, Holder said he did not know why he pleaded the 5th, but said "that is certainly his right as an American citizen."