In the classic Washington investigation at the highest levels of power, it is never the original offense that leads to trouble. It is who knew what and who said what that brings forth the cry of cover-up.
That script is being followed almost to the letter in the drama that continues this week as the US’ Republican-controlled House of Representatives prepares for a possible vote on contempt of US Congress charges against Attorney General Eric Holder.
It began as a congressional probe of Operation “Fast and Furious,” a botched effort by the US Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) to trace illegal gun trafficking to Mexican drug cartels.
Now it is about a letter from the Justice Department to members of Congress dated Feb. 4 of last year that denied the operation’s existence.
“False,” former US assistant attorney general Ronald Weich wrote in that letter of US Senator Chuck Grassley’s contention that the ATF sanctioned the sale of hundreds of assault weapons to “straw purchasers” of guns. Those front men, Grassley said, transported the weapons into Mexico, where US officials lost track of them as they fell into the hands of violent drug cartels.
However, as anger was growing over revelations that one of the Fast and Furious guns had been found at the scene of US Border Patrol agent Brian Terry’s murder in late 2010, the Justice Department began to back-pedal amid press reports about what whistleblowers were telling congressional investigators.
The Justice Department’s position eroded further last year in June, when Weich testified to Congress that there were “serious questions about how ATF conducted this operation.” Furthermore, he said, “we’re not clinging to the statements” in the Feb. 4 letter.
The Justice Department “obstructed the investigation” for nearly a year, said Representative Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. What the committee now wants to know is how and when officials knew the Feb. 4 letter was wrong and why it took so long for them to retract it.
The subpoena the committee issued last week was largely for post-Feb. 4 documents that might shed light on those questions. The claim of executive privilege invoked by US President Barack Obama at the request of his attorney general covers those very same papers.
Holder says he has turned over thousands of pages pertaining to the Fast and Furious operation, but deliberations among officials after Feb. 4 are off-limits.
The administration notes it provided Congress with several thousand pages of documents and other information that give lawmakers a full picture of why the misleading letter was produced.
The blame, those documents suggest, is with a federal prosecutor’s office in Arizona and law enforcement agents who conceived and directed Fast and Furious. High-level Justice officials say they relied on them for the information that led to the erroneous letter.
Last July 4, Issa convened a private session to get testimony from ATF acting director Kenneth Melson. In it, Melson testified that he had discovered in March that ATF agents had been instructed to allow the guns to “walk” into Mexico.
What makes matters worse for the Justice Department is that it did not come forward on its own to withdraw the Feb. 4 letter. Even as Weich wrote that letter, congressional investigators were hearing from whistleblowers that the guns were being allowed to “walk.”
If high-ranking officials in the Justice Department are shown to have knowingly misinformed the Congress or held back information central to the probe, they could be forced to resign or even be prosecuted.
If the Republicans come up empty-handed, they will be subject to accusations that at a time of economic distress and gridlock on critical issues, they burned up time and energy in partisan pursuits.
Democrats accuse Republicans of going on a “fishing expedition” in trying to gain access to documents that have nothing to do with the conduct of operation Fast and Furious.
In invoking executive privilege over those documents, the administration argues that it is protecting confidential conversations that any administration needs to function.
Conservative bloggers and others suggested it was part of an administration back-door effort to impose new regulations on the sale of assault rifles and other “long guns” — a contention Democrats dismiss.
The Republican leadership has worried that the Fast and Furious controversy could detract from election-year efforts to focus public attention on the ailing US economy, and holding Obama responsible for it.