Attorney General Eric Holder got a bruising reception from the Republican-dominated House Judiciary Committee that put the Justice Department on the defensive.
Holder answered questions about the botched gun trafficking operation known as "Fast and Furious" in which federal agents tried to build cases against drug cartels. Instead, they lost track of hundreds of weapons that turned up at crime scenes along the Southwest border.
California Republican Darrell Issa, who has led the investigation of Fast and Furious, sought — without success — to force the attorney general to take a formal oath to tell the truth.
He later declared Holder a hostile witness.
"The blame must go to your desk, and you must today take the real responsibility," Issa said. "Why haven't you terminated the many people involved?"
Issa also brought up a letter the Justice Department sent to Congress in February that said the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) moved whenever it could to seize guns before they went to Mexico.
But that turned out to be false, and the Justice Department retracted the statement.
Holder made clear he's since laid down the law. "Allowing guns to walk, whether in this administration or the prior one, is wholly unacceptable," he said. "The use of this misguided tactic is inexcusable, and it must never happen again."
Holder got some support from a group of big-city police chiefs in blue dress uniforms who were seated behind him.
Democrats on the panel also tried to intervene on the Republicans' line of fire.
Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers said, "If we're going to criticize ATF, I think we must work to revitalize it, not to tear it down."
The attorney general asked Congress to confirm a nominee to lead ATF to pass new laws against gun traffickers, and stop interfering with a rule that forces gun dealers in four border states to report multiple sales of long guns.
But Issa said Holder's priorities are in the wrong place.
"This administration is more interested in talking about gun control than actually controlling the drugs and guns that they had control over," Issa said.
Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner got down to the bottom line when he asked, "What are you gonna do to clean up this mess?"
Holder replied, "Well, first let me make something very clear: Nobody in the Justice Department has lied. Nobody."
Sensenbrenner then asked why the Justice Department letter was withdrawn.
"The letter was withdrawn because [of] the information in there that was inaccurate," Holder said.
Sensenbrenner interjected to pursue his point: "OK, well, tell me: What's the difference between lying and misleading Congress in this context?"
Holder responded, "Well, if you want to have this legal conversation, it all has to do with your state of mind."
Republicans pointed out that next week marks the first anniversary of the death of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry. His death propelled Congress to start digging into the gun operation when two guns linked to Fast and Furious were found near Terry's body.
Holder says some lawmakers have gone too far. "It is unfortunate," he said, "that some have used inflammatory and inappropriate rhetoric about one particular tragedy that occurred near the Southwest border in an effort to score political points."
Eleven months into the congressional investigation of Fast and Furious, there are few signs Republicans are letting up. They say they want Holder's emails, as they continue their inquiry into the actions of higher officers in the Department of Justice.
"Let me be very clear," Holder asserted. "With regards to documents from Feb. 4 on, those documents have not been provided, and our intention is not to provide them."
Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.