WASHINGTON — House Republicans accused Attorney General Eric Holder of hiding information at a hearing Thursday over the botched Operation Fast and Furious gun-trafficking investigation, while Holder dismissed calls for him to resign and said he's not to blame for the scandal.
Holder testified for four tense hours to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Affairs about Fast and Furious. It was a mess in which the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives let illegal weapons flow across the border into Mexico and into the hands of criminals as part of a failed sting operation meant to track the guns and nab drug lords.
Some Republicans on the House oversight committee suggested that Holder was engaged in a cover-up and had been misleading Congress.
"Because you have been grossly incompetent in the way that you have prepared before coming to Congress, I think you should resign," said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho.
Holder responded that his accusers were engaging in "political gotcha games" and character assassination. Democrats on the committee said that the Republicans were engaged in an election-year witch hunt and that there's no evidence tying the attorney general to the operation.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, asked about the hearing in Thursday's daily briefing, said the issue has been politicized and that the president "absolutely" stands by Holder as attorney general.
Holder and lawmakers from both parties agreed that Operation Fast and Furious was a disaster that never should have happened. Investigators lost track of about 1,400 of the roughly 2,000 guns purchased between 2009 and January 2011, and many ended up at crime scenes in Mexico and the U.S.
Two of the guns connected to Fast and Furious were found at the scene near Nogales, Ariz., where U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in December 2010.
"How many border patrol agents would have had to die as part of Operation Fast and Furious for you to take responsibility?" Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, R-N.Y., asked Holder.
Holder said the question was inappropriate. "Is that the way in which you want to be seen? Is that how you want to be known?" he asked Buerkle.
Committee chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said he's not among those calling on Holder to resign and is not accusing the attorney general of having personal knowledge of the operation.
But he said Holder should have known about it and is now balking at cooperating with Congress. He said Holder has given 10 times fewer Fast and Furious documents to the House oversight committee as to Justice Department's inspector general, which is doing its own investigation. Issa has threatened to seek a contempt ruling unless the documents are turned over.
Holder said that the Justice Department has provided 6,400 pages of documents to the committee so far and that the only ones that would be held back detail open criminal investigations and internal executive branch deliberations. Holder said prior administrations also have taken the stance that releasing documentation of internal discussions over pending decisions would have a chilling effect on communications.
Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., wasn't satisfied. "The conclusion I come to is there's something in there you don't want us to see," he said.
Other Republicans hammered on Holder for previous Justice Department statements to Congress, including a Feb. 4, 2011, letter in which the department incorrectly said federal agents made every effort to stop the flow of illegal guns. The department later retracted the letter.
Holder said he made sure Operation Fast and Furious was over as soon as he learned about its tactics and that reforms are in place to keep it from happening again.
Democrats on the oversight committee released a report this week concluding that federal agents in Arizona were to blame for the operation and not Justice Department officials in Washington.
"Contrary to repeated claims by some, the Committee has obtained no evidence that Operation Fast and Furious was a politically-motivated operation conceived and directed by high-level Obama Administration political appointees at the Department of Justice," wrote Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the committee's top Democrat.
The report found that Fast and Furious was one of four such flawed operations between 2006 and 2010 under both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations.
(Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed.)
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