Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. clashed Thursday with congressional Republicans seeking more information about a flawed gun-trafficking investigation in Arizona.
Lawmakers at a House Judiciary Committee hearing asked Holder what he knew in advance of public disclosure of a so-called gun-walking tactic in early 2011. As part of Operation Fast and Furious, agents were told to forego immediate arrests of suspected straw purchasers of guns and instead try to track the guns to higher-ups in gun-smuggling rings. Such a tactic is normally barred under Justice Department policy.
Agents lost track of hundreds of guns that flowed south to Mexico, where many were recovered at crime scenes. Two such guns were found in the United States at the scene of the killing of border agent Brian Terry.
Holder told the committee he became aware of the gun-walking tactic at the same time as the public and that he found out "about the same time" that guns found at the scene of Terry's death were part of Operation Fast and Furious.
Holder has faced off repeatedly with Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and other Republicans in recent months over his handling of the aborted firearms investigation. Issa's committee has prepared a contempt citation against Holder but not voted on it yet, applying pressure for more documents on Operation Fast and Furious.
Holder said the Justice Department has cooperated fully with congressional investigators and turned over 7,600 pages of material to Congress about the operation.
"Look, I don't want to hear about the 7,600," snapped Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that is investigating the operation. Issa has been Holder's frequent sparring partner during recent gun-walking hearings.
Issa said Thursday that wiretap applications in Operation Fast and Furious indicate that a number of key individuals at the Justice Department were responsible for the use of the gun-walking tactic.
"I've read them," replied Holder, adding that he disagreed with Issa's conclusions. The material on the wiretaps is sealed in a federal court, but Issa said the committee obtained the applications from whistle-blowers cooperating with his investigation.
Committee chairman Lamar Smith of Texas asked for the identity of the highest-level official in the Obama administration who knew gun-walking was taking place. Holder replied that the operation began in law enforcement offices in Arizona and that he was not at all certain beyond that.
"I don't think anybody in Washington knew about those tactics," said the attorney general.
The Justice Department's inspector general is looking into who knew.
At Thursday's hearing, House Democrats placed on record letters urging Issa not to pursue Holder's contempt citation. The letters included notes from Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, the survivors of the mass shooting in Tucson that wounded former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the National Action Network headed by the Rev. Al Sharpton.