House Republicans demanded Thursday that Attorney General Eric Holder turn over more documents related to the botched gun-running operation "Fast and Furious" or face possible contempt of Congress citations.
At a hearing of the House Oversight Committee Thursday morning, House Republicans accused Holder of stonewalling their investigation by refusing to release congressionally subpoenaed documents.
On Wednesday, the Justice Department rejected Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa’s (R-Calif.) February 9 deadline for another batch of documents, saying it was "impossible" to meet because of its broad scope.
At the hearing, Issa shot back at the Justice Department, complaining that the department’s inspector general office had been given many more documents for its own investigation than the committee.
"We’ve been told…that [documents] are difficult and time-consuming to give us. And yet 10 times as many documents have been given to the inspector general," Issa said. "More than three times as many people have been interviewed by the inspector general," said Issa. "When is the primary investigative committee of the U.S. House going to have the same access as your, essentially, self-appointed inspector general has?"
Republicans also continued to press Holder on exactly when and how much he and his department knew about the operation. A committee report released hours before the hearing claims Justice headquarters "had much greater knowledge of, and involvement in, Fast and Furious than it has previously acknowledged."
Operation Fast and Furious allowed nearly 2,000 firearms to be purchased by suspected straw buyers in the United States and smuggled over the border, into Mexico and the hands of violent drug cartels. The intention was to track the firearms, but ATF agents lost track of roughly 1,400 of the guns.
Two AK-47s connected to Fast and Furious were later found at the scene of U.S. border agent Brian Terry’s murder in December 2010, leading to the probe.
Terry’s family announced Wednesday they intend to sue the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Justice Department for $25 million. Terry’s family said the ATF operation was "abominable, reckless, nonsensical."
In his testimony, Holder defended the Justice Department’s handling of the operation, as well as his own performance. Holder even said he should be given credit for the positive changes he’s brought to the Justice Department.
"I should be held accountable for, certainly, my role—whatever I did or didn't do in connection to the supervision of Operation Fast and Furious," Holder said. "But I'm Attorney General of the United States, and I should be held accountable, perhaps even given some credit—imagine that, given some credit—for the things that this Department has done under my leadership."
But Holder did say for the first time since the controversy began that those responsible for the decision to let the guns walk across the border will likely be dismissed, citing the ongoing investigation by the inspector general.
"Unless there’s some truly compelling circumstance, those people will be removed from federal service," Holder said, adding that he expected the department would take such action in the next six months.
Committee Democrats derided the hearing—the sixth so far that Holder has testified at—as a politically charged "election-year witch hunt."
"Mr. Chairman, although you deserve credit for exposing these operations over the last five years, we part ways in what we should do next," said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.). "You now appear intent on escalating controversy and promoting unsubstantiated allegations in a campaign that looks more like an election-year witch hunt than an even-handed investigation."
Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) asked, "Does the majority even attempt to avoid the appearance that this is nothing but a politically motivated attack?"
And Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) said he had prayed for Holder before coming to the hearing.
Democrats repeatedly argued that gun-walking operations had begun under the Bush administration. They also called for stricter laws prosecuting straw buyers and gun traffickers.
Furor over operation Fast and Furious has led more than 55 members of Congress to call for the resignation of Holder, and the GOP has even set up a website where one can sign a petition calling for President Obama to fire Holder.