Attorney general to face Senate over gun sting

WASHINGTON Tue Nov 8, 2011 12:29am EST

Attorney General Eric Holder gestures at an annual awards ceremony for the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency in Washington October 18, 2011. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Attorney General Eric Holder gestures at an annual awards ceremony for the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency in Washington October 18, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Yuri Gripas

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Attorney General Eric Holder will go before a Senate committee on Tuesday where he will likely be asked about a botched operation that was meant to track gun smuggling to top Mexican drug cartels.

Holder has been in a war of words with congressional Republicans over "Operation Fast and Furious" for months, leading to demands from some critics that he step down.

Lawmakers want to know who approved letting so-called straw purchasers buy nearly 2,000 guns for the cartels and who knew about it. The attorney general has said he only knew about it after controversy erupted. Republicans have expressed doubts.

So far, no evidence has come to light showing that Holder read 100-plus page memos that briefly and broadly referred to the operation, or that his senior aides knew either.

Excerpts of Holder's remarks to the Senate Judiciary Committee, released in advance, reiterate past statements about "Fast and Furious" -- that it was flawed and that more needs to be done to stem gun trafficking. Holder will almost assuredly be asked what he knew and when.

"This operation was flawed in concept, as well as in execution ... This should never have happened," Holder plans to say according to excerpts released on Monday.

"Like each of you, I want to know why and how firearms that should have been under surveillance could wind up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels," he says in the prepared statement.

Republicans in the Senate and the House of Representatives who have been investigating the scandal have excoriated Holder, saying he should have known about it. Some have gone so far as to demand his resignation.

To coincide with the Senate hearing on Tuesday, the powerful gun lobbying group the National Rifle Association has begun running an 60-second advertisement on cable television calling for Holder's resignation as well.

OBAMA BACKS HOLDER

That is unlikely. President Barack Obama said a month ago that he fully supported Holder despite the controversy.

Holder's prepared remarks also offered veiled criticism toward Republicans, saying he wanted their shared concerns about the bungled operation to lead to more than "gotcha games" and "cynical political point scoring".

He urged Congress to provide more resources to the Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to crack down on guns being smuggled to Mexico.

He said "Fast and Furious" highlighted that "we are losing the battle to stop the flow of illegal guns to Mexico."

The debacle came to light after a U.S. Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry, was killed in a shootout with illegal immigrants on the border. Two of the weapons at the scene were tied to the operation. It was not clear if they fired the fatal shot.

The controversy about the operation, which ran from late 2009 until Terry was killed in December 2010, led to a shakeup at the Phoenix offices of the Justice Department and ATF.

Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley has questioned whether Holder misled Congress when he said in May he only learned of the operation and its tactics just weeks earlier. The Justice Department has said he stands by his comments.

"I hope he comes to the Judiciary Committee with a willingness to be forthcoming in answering some difficult questions," Grassley said in a statement.

In a further bid to blunt some of the criticism, Justice Department officials have pointed to a similar sting, dubbed "Wide Receiver", during the previous Bush administration in which guns were allowed to be illegally taken to Mexico.

One of Holder's top aides, the head of the Justice Department's criminal division Lanny Breuer, was told about the "Wide Receiver" program in early 2010 and last week expressed regret for not alerting others to gun smuggling tactics used.

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