A key Justice Department official clashed with House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Wednesday, as the two battled over whether the DOJ is stonewalling a probe into a controversial gun smuggling program or if Issa’s panel is undermining ongoing criminal cases.
Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich found himself trapped between the need to protect an ongoing Inspector General investigation into the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives’ Operation “Fast and Furious,” criminal prosecutions of dozens of defendants and a congressional probe, led by Issa and Senate Judiciary Committee ranking Republican Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa).
Weich pledged cooperation with the committee – a promise that angered Issa.
“In response to your subpoena, the department has been striving to reconcile these dual principles by accommodating the committee’s oversight interest while protecting important law enforcement confidentiality interests,” Weich told the committee. “The rules of the House do not easily permit a committee to keep documents confidential.”
Issa began questioning Weich by holding up sheets of heavily redacted paper with a single large black square covering nearly the entire page. He said his staff had looked at similarly redacted documents at an in-camera meeting between committee staff and DOJ officials.
“The pages go on like this forever,” Issa said. “How dare you make an opening statement of cooperation. We had to subpoena again and again. Your representatives of the executive branch have discouraged witnesses from coming forward.”
But in his written statement, Weich fired back at Issa.
“The Committee’s oversight activities in this matter has already risked undermining, albeit unintentionally, the independence, integrity, and effectiveness of the Department’s criminal investigations,” he said. He said the committee had subpoenaed documents and testimony for a hearing from a witness who was scheduled to testify at a criminal trial involving 20 defendants, adding that at the time of the subpoena, neither person’s cooperation nor identity had been disclosed
Issa’s questions to Weich centered around who at the Justice Department authorized the ATF operation. But as the hearing proceeded – and Weich’s most common response became “I don’t know the answer to that question, and the Inspector General is looking into it” – Issa relented, saying he would get someone before the committee who could name names.
The congressional investigation has strained relations between the committee and the DOJ as department officials try to protect an ongoing investigation and two criminal cases against the alleged killers of Border Patrol agent Brian A. Terry.
Two of the approximately 2,000 guns that ATF officials sold to Mexican drug cartel members during the operation were found at the scene of a gunbattle where Terry was shot and killed.
At an earlier hearing, Ranking Democratic Member Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) published a letter saying Issa’s staff had released documents to the press that had been sealed by a federal district court judge.
“I’m concerned about people possibly dying as a result of something we might do in this committee,” Cummings said Wednesday. “I’m concerned about murderers getting off.”
But Cummings also called for a day of minority party hearings on the ATF operation.
Weich’s testimony came after a panel featuring Grassley, several ATF agents and members of the Terry family. The agents alleged that officials had allowed guns to be sold to straw buyers, then set free from law enforcement surveillance, allowing them to be trafficked into Mexico.
Known as “walking” in law enforcement parlance, allowing such trafficking would violate the law.
Special Agent Peter J. Forcelli said that officials at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona, including Assistant U.S. Attorney Emory Hurley and U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke, have declined to pursue promising gun cases against the straw buyers.
“Dozens of firearms traffickers were given a pass by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona,” Forcelli said. “There have been grave mistakes made in this case.”
Questions also probed the relationship between the Arizona U.S. Attorney’s Office and the state’s law enforcement officers.
Remarks by Special Agent John Dodson raised questions about whether members of the Inspector General’s Office were involved in a conflict of interest.
“Well, I can see a conflict between the Office of the OIG,” Dodson said. “However those two offices being who they are and how they are aligned, there’s inherently a conflict of interest. If in fact someone at DOJ authorized this, knows about it, is as well versed as everyone at ATF – that thereby creates the conflict with OIG.”
Both President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have denied authorizing the operation.