Attorney General Eric Holder spent almost three hours on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, getting a grilling from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee about a flawed gun-trafficking operation that let hundreds of guns flow across the Southwest border.
But even after the Justice Department oversight hearing, Republican lawmakers say there are lots of questions that remain unanswered.
The operation, dubbed "Fast and Furious," was supposed to follow weapons into the hands of violent Mexican drug cartels and make big cases against them. Scrutiny intensified earlier this year after authorities confirmed two weapons traced to the program were found near the body of U.S. border patrol agent Brian Terry.
Most of Tuesday's hearing focused on one key issue: a Feb. 4, 2011, letter the Justice Department sent to Congress. The letter said it was department policy to make "every effort" to intercept weapons before they go to Mexico. That turned out to be misleading.
Last week, Justice Department official Lanny Breuer told Congress he found out last year about guns going awry in a program run by the Bush administration, but he didn't raise a red flag about it.
Ultimately, Justice didn't correct the record until last week. Too little, too late, said Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn.
"That letter is itself false, we now know," Cornyn said.
"Well, I'd say it — what I said is it contains inaccurate information," Holder replied.
Cornyn shot back: "Well, isn't that false?"
"I don't want to quibble with you," Holder said, "but false, I think, implies people making a decision to deceive, and that was not what was going on there."
That remains the subject of investigation by Republican lawmakers, who want to know who at the Justice Department reviewed drafts of that letter before it went to Capitol Hill. Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican who's been leading an inquiry into the failed gun-trafficking program, said he's been asking for drafts, but the Justice Department won't turn them over.
Holder didn't commit Tuesday to providing those documents, even under prodding.
Grassley also demanded more information about who at the department "smeared" John Dodson, a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent who blew the whistle to Congress regarding his doubts about the gun program. Documents and talking points that questioned Dodson's credibility emerged after lawmakers had warned authorities not to retaliate against him. The Justice Department's inspector general and ethics office are investigating that leak, first reported by NPR in July.
The gun missteps are shrouded in partisan politics. Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, said at the hearing with Holder that Republicans have their own botched investigations to answer for. Schumer pointed out that a Bush-era gun-trafficking operation on the Southwest border known as Wide Receiver sent 400 weapons to Mexico back in 2006.
"It's sort of one-sided outrage about the whole issue when we know now that it began, or its progenitor began, before you took office, before President Obama took office," Schumer said.
Documents released by Democrats last week indicate one troubled gun-trafficking operation appeared in a briefing paper for Bush administration Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey in 2007, but people close to Mukasey say the memo didn't contain specifics about why the operation went bad.
And Republicans on the Judiciary Committee tried to distinguish the Obama gun operation from the Bush one, citing two main reasons: the Obama operation, they say, moved more guns and did not involve prior knowledge and cooperation from the Mexican government.
So far, there's little evidence that details about any of the botched gun operations reached Attorney General Holder.
That didn't stop Cornyn from asking about it.
"You're not suggesting, are you, General Holder, that it's not your responsibility to have known about this operation?" asked Cornyn, who said that 119 weapons tied to the Fast and Furious program have turned up in Texas.
"Well, there are 115,000 employees in the United States Department of Justice," Holder said.
"And the buck stops with you," Cornyn interjected.
Holder told the senator that he has ultimate responsibility at the department, "but I cannot be expected to know the details of every operation that is ongoing in the Justice Department on a day-to-day basis."
Holder told lawmakers the operation "was flawed in its concept and flawed in its execution, and unfortunately, we will feel the effects for years to come.
"This should never have happened, and it must never happen again," he said.
But Holder said troubles with the program should not deter the U.S. from fighting the flow of arms across the Southwest border.
To do that well, the attorney general said, prosecutors need tougher prison sentences to deter gun traffickers and more information about people who buy assault weapons. The weapons industry has gone to court this year to challenge more modest steps by the Obama administration, such as a reporting requirement that covers gun dealers in four Southwest border states where people buy multiple semi-automatic weapons.
Grassley said the Justice Department is missing the point and not holding employees accountable for their lapses. "The bottom line is that it doesn't matter how many laws we pass if those responsible for enforcing them refuse to do their duty," Grassley said.
The Senate testimony is hardly the end of the matter.
Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee want Holder to appear in early December. And Democrats on that panel say they want to call the former leader of the ATF, Kenneth Melson, to testify as well. Richard Cullen, a lawyer for Melson, told NPR that his client would "cooperate and testify if asked."
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