After years of litigation between Congress and the Department of Justice over Operation Fast & Furious and a claim of executive privilege on related communications, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee finally has most of the relevant documents. Oversight chair Jason Chaffetz argues in a release today that the picture painted in these documents show a deliberate effort to obstruct the proper oversight role of Congress, and that DoJ officials all the way up to then-Attorney General Eric Holder took part in the effort to shield the ATF from exposure of its fatal incompetence:
More than previously understood, the documents show the lengths to which senior Department officials went to keep information from Congress. Further, the documents reveal how senior Justice Department officials—including Attorney General Eric Holder—intensely followed and managed an effort to carefully limit and obstruct the information produced to Congress. Justice Department officials in Washington impeded the congressional investigation in several ways, including:
- Presuming that allegations about gunwalking in Arizona were false and refusing to adjust when documents and evidence showed otherwise.
- Politicizing decisions about how and whether to comply with the congressional investigation.
- Devising strategies to redact or otherwise withhold relevant information from Congress and the public.
- Isolating the fallout from the Fast and Furious scandal to ATF leadership and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona.
- Creating a culture of animosity towards congressional oversight.
Some of the communications also show considerable ineptitude and miscommunication among DoJ and ATF officials. Senator Charles Grassley, then ranking member of the Judiciary Committee and now its chair, began demanding answers about the ATF’s gunwalking efforts in Mexico after the murder of Brian Terry. At first, ATF and DoJ officials insisted that Grassley was just ignorant of the facts and intended on conducting a political attack on ATF:
On January 31, 2011, U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke wrote to Justice Department officials in Washington to share his concerns about a letter from Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Charles Grassley to ATF Director Kenneth Melson raising questions about whether guns were allowed to traffic into Mexico. Burke wrote: “Grassley’s assertions regarding the Arizona investigation and the weapons recovered at the BP agent Terry murder scene are based on categorical falsehoods. I worry that ATF will take 8 months to answer this when they should be refuting its underlying accusations right now.”
Further down the chain, Deputy AG Jamie Weinstein insisted that the allegations were false and strategized how to undermine Grassley’s attempt to shine a light on Fast and Furious:
Weinstein then suggested to Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division Lanny Breuer that he email Melson “offering any assistance they need for the Grassley briefing.”6 Weinstein further advised that “ATF can and should strongly refute” that a Fast and Furious weapon was involved in the Brian Terry attack.
Five months later, both ATF and DoJ were still insisting that Grassley was all wet:
On Friday, June 17, 2011, in response to news reports that firearms used in a high-profile kidnapping and murder were linked to Fast and Furious, Associate Deputy Attorney General Matt Axelrod emailed ATF, asking: “Were two F&F guns actually traced to the scene of this kidnapping? Can you run that down for us?”8 ATF dismissed the connection by responding that day: “[T]o suggest the guns are linked is like saying there was a murder in southeast three weeks ago. Tonight a car load of guys g[o]t caught with guns in southeast. Ergo the guns are linked to the murder.”9
But five days later, apparently someone in the nation’s largest federal investigative agency got around to checking out the facts:
Only after Chairman Issa and Ranking Member Grassley wrote to the Ambassador of Mexico on June 21, 2011 to ask for further details did Axelrod ask more probing questions of ATF.10 Subsequently, on June 22, 2011, Associate Deputy Attorney General Matt Axelrod emailed senior officials, including Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole: “I just heard from ATF. Their initial reporting on this was incorrect. Evidently, when MX law enforcement arrested the kidnappers at their hideout, they seized a number of firearms, two of which tie back to Fast and Furious. I’ll double check Issa’s letter in the morning, but it appears that the allegations in it (and in the Fox News report) are accurate.”
D’oh! And yet two months later, Holder and his team strategized about how to quietly move out Ken Melson and Dennis Burke without prompting more curiosity about the Fast and Furious scandal:
On August 28, 2011, Attorney General Holder was strategizing with top officials in Washington about how to announce ATF Director Ken Melson and U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke would resign due to their roles in Fast and Furious. Holder was concerned the news would leak early because Melson had already cleaned out his office. He instructed his staff to have someone at ATF “close the door to his office.”31 Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole worried announcing Melson’s resignation would create the appearance Melson was the only official being removed. He wrote to Holder: “The problem with going earlier than Tuesday is that we won’t have Dennis in the package.”
Holder responded: “Let’s hold all until Tuesday as planned.”33 He replied to his own email: “We have to make known the breadth of the changes- at the top in USAO and ATF. At worker level at USAO and ATF. No one is a fall guy here.” 34 Further proof of the coordination by main Justice of the Melson and Burke staff changes occurred when Melson emailed a proposed “draft press release” he “would like to issue from ATF.”35 David O’Neil responded to the chain (with Holder cc’ed):
Ken’s message below reads like he may think he’s giving us a heads-up on the message he plans to send on Monday as opposed to asking for clearance. If we haven’t made clear to him that we want to approve/coordinate any messaging about this, we probably should say that OPA is going to revise the first draft he shared and we’ll get back to him with a new one.36
Stuart Goldberg alerted the email chain: “the DAG [Jim Cole] did tell him the change would be announced on Tuesday,” to which Holder questioned “Did Jim say it in Spanish?” Cole responded, “Further proof of the need for a change.”
Very clearly, everyone up the chain knew about the disastrous consequences of Fast & Furious. Yet rather than engage transparently with Congress — which has a legitimate role and responsibility to oversee executive-branch agencies like ATF and DoJ — Holder et al chose to obfuscate and hide.
Powerline’s Paul Mirengoff writes that the documents confirm Holder’s role in the cover-up … but that it probably won’t matter now. The stonewalling project succeeded:
When the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform tried to investigate the scandal, Team Obama stonewalled. First, it denied that law enforcement officers allowed straw purchasers to buy firearms illegally in the United States with the intent to traffic them without apprehension. Almost a year later, it finally admitted that this is precisely what had happened.
Second, when the Committee subpoenaed relevant documents, Eric Holder’s DOJ refused to produce them, citing “executive privilege.” The House voted to hold Holder in contempt and filed suit to obtain the documents. Three and half years later, Judge Jackson ordered production of the 20,000 pages mentioned above. …
More broadly, this case illustrates that, whatever the extent of their moral shortcomings, cover-ups probably succeed more often then they fail. Here, Eric Holder largely succeeded in thwarting the Fast and Furious investigation. Four years later, Barack Obama is completing his second term. Sleazy Eric Holder is back at his top tier law firm that reportedly has represented large banks he declined to prosecute for their alleged role in the financial crisis.
And Fast and Furious is all but forgotten.
By almost all but its victims, such as the families of Brian Terry and others killed by the weapons unleashed by the ATF. Let’s not forget either that this was less of an effort to plug the gaps in firearms sales oversight than it was an attempt to paint gun shops as witting accomplices to straw-man purchases in order to get political support for more regulations on federal firearms licensed dealers … enforced by the ATF and DoJ.