This article has been updated with comment from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
It’s been clear for some time that the Fast and Furious probe had devolved into congressional Republicans just trying to get Justice Department Criminal Division chief Lanny Breuer’s head on a pike.
Last December, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) publicly demanded that Breuer quit or be fired. In February, Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) told Holder: “I do believe there are people at Main Justice who ultimately do need to go.”
Now, Newsweek’s Daniel Klaidman – who has covered the Attorney General for some two decades — writes Issa offered to halt contempt of Congress charges against Holder if the Justice Department agreed to collect the “scalp” of Breuer.
But, a spokesman for the House Oversight and Reform Committee denies any accusation of a quid-pro-quo offer.
“Neither Chairman Issa nor any member of his staff has ever called for Lanny Breuer to resign or be fired,” said spokesman Frederick Hill. ”This false report is only evidence of the Justice Department’s bad faith in dealing with the committee. Chairman Issa has been extremely clear that if Attorney General Holder wishes to avoid contempt he needs to produce documents.”
Breuer has admitted to knowing about controversial “gun-walking” tactics that let U.S.-purchased weapons flow over the Mexican border used during a prior George W. Bush administration probe, Operation Wide Receiver. But he has denied knowing about similar tactics in the more recent Operation Fast and Furious.
Stephen Castor, Issa’s chief investigative counsel, said in a phone conversation with Justice Department official Steven Reich that if Breuer agreed to vacate his post as Chief of the Criminal Division, Issa would be more willing to pursue a settlement, Klaidman reported.
Reich rejected Castor’s offer, calling it a “non-starter,” Klaidman wrote.
Reich joined the Justice Department from Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP last year specifically to handle the congressional inquiries expected after Republicans won control of the House in 2010. Reich is an old friend of Breuer, whom he succeeded in the White House counsel’s in the 1990s. Breuer had been defending Bill Clinton during the House of Representatives’ impeachment of the president for fibbing under oath about his affair with a White House intern. Reich handled media and other duties after Breuer departed for Covington & Burling LLP.
Why bring down Breuer? For one, he was widely believed to have had aspirations to succeed Holder as Attorney General in a putative second Barack Obama administration. Those dreams are destroyed. Two, politics is a blood sport, and he’s a prominent Democrat worthy of a boastful killing.
The Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted along party lines on Wednesday to advance contempt of Congress charges against Holder. The full House will vote on the charges next week, said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). The Republican-controlled committee agreed by a 23-17 vote to advance the contempt citation despite President Barack Obama’s invocation of executive privilege over several of the documents Issa’s committee has relentlessly pursued.
The Justice Department says releasing certain documents would compromise the integrity of on-going criminal investigations, or that the documents are related to internal deliberations about how to respond to inquires from congress and the media. Recently, Republican lawmakers have blasted the Attorney General for refusing to turn over subpoenaed documents, accusing him of “stonewalling.”
The documents Issa seeks allegedly indicate high-ranking Department of Justice officials knew of the use of gun-walking tactics in Operation Fast and Furious before Border Patrol agent Brian Terry’s death.
Recently, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has called the contempt charges an attempt to suppress the vote. Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh speculated the whole point of Operation Fast and Furious was to flood guns in to Mexico to corral into a fury about weak gun-control laws.
Operation Fast and Furious was an investigation jointly orchestrated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosive and the Arizona U.S. Attorneys office. Officials allowed over 2,000 guns purchased by straw-buyers to cross the southwest border in an attempt to gather the evidence necessary to prosecute higher-ups in Mexican drug cartels. The operation backfired and over 300 guns were lost. Two were found at the scene of Terry’s death, after he was killed in a firefight between Border Patrol agents and Mexican bandits.