Wiretap applications show that top Justice Department officials, including Criminal Division chief Lanny Breuer, knew about the gun-walking tactics used in Operation Fast and Furious, Rep. Darrell Issa alleged in a letter sent Tuesday.
Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder that recently reviewed wiretap applications, which were approved over a five-month period in 2010, reveal that upper-level managers within the department were “in no uncertain terms” aware of the gun-walking occurring on the U.S.-Mexican border.
The California Republican said the six approved wiretap applications “establish a direct link between what was happening on the ground in Phoenix and senior Justice Department officials in Washington, D.C.” Holder and other top Justice officials have maintained that they were not aware of the tactics used, with Holder previously calling the investigation ”fatally flawed.”
“The department can no longer push such information away from its political appointees,” Issa wrote to Holder. “It is time for you to honor your commitment to Congress and the American people by holding these individuals accountable.”
The six wiretap applications, which are under seal in a federal court in Arizona, are each appended with a memo from Breuer to Paul M. O’Brien, the department’s chief of the Office of Enforcement Operations. Issa said Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jason Weinstein and Deputy Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Blanco were also responsible for reviewing the documents.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole on Tuesday responded to Issa — in addition to House Speaker John Boehner, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy and Majority Leader Eric Cantor – saying the “sealed court documents related to pending federal prosecutions… have been disclosed to the committee… in violation of law.”
“While we are legally prohibited from commenting on the content of the sealed court documents, we disagree with the chairman’s assertions,” Cole wrote, adding that the disclosure is “of great concern to us.”
The committee’s ranking member, Rep. Elijah Cummings, came to the DOJ’s defense on Tuesday, writing that Issa’s letter “mischaracterize[s] the contents and significance of these documents.” (Read Cummings’ letter here.)
Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, contends that the signatures of top-ranking DOJ officials on the wiretap applications do not necessarily mean thes official knew about that tactics being used on the ground in Phoenix. Wiretap applications are reviewed and summarized by career line attorneys in the Office of Enforcement Operations and then submitted to the department’s politically appointed front office for final approval. Cummings wrote that in previous testimony, Weinstein has explained that these applications often do not contain descriptions of many phases and tactics of the investigation. Such granular oversight is “fundamentally the job of the supervisory chain in the U.S. Attorney’s Office that is actually prosecuting the case,” Weinstein previously testified.
The committee’s investigation of Fast and Furious has sparked calls for resignations and threats of contempt of Congress. Fast and Furious was a failed gun-tracing operation headed up by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Agents aimed to track some 2,000 guns purchased by straw-buyers in an attempt to trace and apprehend gun smugglers working for drug cartels. The investigation backfired, however, and ATF lost track of hundreds of guns, two of which were found at the scene of a 2010 shootout between U.S. Border Patrol agents and Mexican bandits. Border patrol agent Brian Terry was killed in the gunfire.
This is not the first time members of Congress have called for swift action against Breuer. Last December Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) called for Breuer to resign in the wake of the Fast and Furious failures.
More recently, Issa has threatened Holder with contempt of Congress because he believes the Justice Department has dragged its feet in response to his committee’s investigation. The Justice Department has said it cannot hand over the thousands of additional documents the committee has requested because it could tamper with ongoing investigations and prosecutions.