WASHINGTON, DC – The House Oversight Committee could proceed Wednesday in considering a contempt measure against U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder unless he provides at least some of the documents the committee has sought in relation to Operation Fast and Furious, a botched federal firearms sting operation that allowed weapons to reach Mexican drug gangs.
A showdown meeting Tuesday between Eric Holder and committee chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California, failed to resolve their dispute.
“We are disappointed,” Issa told reporters after the meeting. “We never expected to get all the documents. Our hope was and still is that later this evening we’ll get the documents.”
Holder said he offered to provide the documents to Issa on the condition that Issa provided his assurance that doing so would satisfy two committee subpoenas and resolve the dispute.
“I think the ball’s in their court,” Holder told reporters. “They rejected what I thought was an extraordinary offer on our part.”
Asked about whether Issa was open to resolving the issue before the committee meets Wednesday, Holder said: “I think we actually are involved more in political gamesmanship” instead of a sincere effort to get the requested documents.
A Justice Department spokesman reiterated Holder’s position that the documents would show Holder had nothing to hide about his role in Fast and Furious.
After the meeting, Deputy Attorney General James Cole sent a letter to Issa, expressing disappointment.
“Our offer would have provided the committee with unprecedented access to these documents, many of which are not covered by the committee’s subpoenas in this matter,” he wrote. “We had hoped that you shared our interest in bringing this matter to an amicable resolution and we regret that you rejected our extraordinary proposal to do so.”
The meeting in the Capitol building amounted to both sides reiterating positions already staked out through an exchange of letters over the past week.
A committee statement issued before Tuesday’s meeting said it was a chance for Holder to meet the panel’s demands for additional documents, which would allow for a postponement.
“Currently, (the Department of Justice) has not delivered or shown the committee any of the documents it has said it is prepared to produce,” the statement continued. “It is not clear if they will actually produce these documents to the committee before the Wednesday vote to facilitate a postponement.”
Holder, however, said he made an unprecedented offer of documents and a briefing to the committee, which so far has turned him down.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the committee who also attended the meeting, said Holder was trying to end a protracted standoff with the Republican-led panel.
“He sees this as a never-ending process,” Cummings said in describing Holder’s concerns about the continuing requests for more documentation.
Another person in the room, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy, D-Vermont, said afterward that he supported Holder and appreciated “that he is going the extra mile to resolve this.”
Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also participated in the meeting with Holder and Issa.
“The attorney general wants to trade a briefing and the promise of delivering some small, unspecified set of documents tomorrow for a free pass today,” Grassley said after the meeting. “He wants to turn over only what he wants to turn over and not give us any information about what he’s not turning over. That’s unacceptable. I’m not going to buy a pig in a poke.”
Issa has accused the attorney general of stonewalling an investigation into Fast and Furious and how the Justice Department provided Congress with erroneous information about it. The department says it already has handed over more than 7,000 pages of records to House investigators, and that the remaining material Issa wants could jeopardize criminal prosecutions.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives launched Operation Fast and Furious out of Arizona to track weapon purchases by Mexican drug cartels. However, it lost track of more than 1,000 firearms that the agency had allowed straw buyers to carry across the border, and two of the lost weapons turned up at the scene of the killing of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.
Asked by a reporter about why he was pushing so hard, Issa said it was because the nation and Terry’s family deserved to know as much information as possible about the program linked to Terry’s death.
In particular, Issa’s committee wants documents that show why the Department of Justice decided to withdraw as inaccurate a February 2011 letter sent to Congress that said top officials had only recently learned about Fast and Furious.
The back-and-forth letters exchanged between Holder and Issa before Tuesday’s meeting revealed an incremental negotiation over what the committee wanted and what the Department of Justice was offering to provide.
In a late Monday letter, Issa made clear he wanted the documents ahead of time and also wanted Grassley, a leading Holder critic, to take part.
Holder agreed to a meeting but told Issa he wanted to include Cummings and Leahy. His letter Monday said the purpose of the meeting would be to reach an agreement that would avoid a “constitutional confrontation,” a reference to the committee’s planned vote on the contempt measure.