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House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa said today that he is moving forward with contempt proceedings against Attorney General Eric Holder after a 20-minute meeting between the two this afternoon failed to bridge the impasse.
Holder said he offered to produce a key category of documents related to the “Fast and Furious” gun-walking probe, but only if releasing the documents absolved Issa’s demands for a broader set of documents that have been subpoenaed.
Unless the Justice Department produces the key category of documents before Wednesday, his panel will bring contempt proceedings, Issa said.
“We responded as I think we have to, which is that the documents that they may choose to give in the future we need to have before tomorrow,” Issa said after the meeting.
The documents at issue are internal communications from after the Justice Department sent a Feb. 4, 2011, letter to Senate Judiciary ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) broadly denying that the tactics at the heart of the Fast and Furious operation were ever used.
In December 2011, the department conceded that the operation was “fundamentally flawed” and rescinded the letter, as well as provided internal communications from the period during which the letter was drafted.
Issa has said that internal communications from after the letter was drafted and sent are key to understanding how senior DOJ officials realized the February 2011 letter was false, including whether officials were surprised to learn the tactics had been used.
In Fast and Furious, agents for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed assault guns to “walk,” which meant ending surveillance on weapons suspected to be en route to Mexican drug cartels.
The tactic, which was intended to allow agents to track criminal networks by finding the guns at crime scenes, was condemned after two guns that were part of the operation were found at Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry’s murder scene.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), ranking member of the Oversight panel who was also present at the meeting, said he believed Issa came into the meeting determined not to strike a deal based how the discussion went.
At a news conference, Holder said, “I think we are involved more in political gamesmanship as opposed to trying to get the information they say they want.”
In letters leading up to the meeting, Issa had said that if Holder did not produce the post-Feb. 4 documents before the scheduled contempt hearing, it would go forward, and he urged Holder to produce the documents this morning so his panel could review them.
“Today, the Attorney General informed us that the Department would not be producing those documents. The only offer they made involved us ending our investigation,” Issa said in a written statement released after the meeting.
“While I still hope the Department will reconsider its decision so tomorrow’s vote can be postponed, after this meeting I cannot say that I am optimistic. At this point, we simply do not have the documents we have repeatedly said we need to justify the postponement of a contempt vote in committee.”
In a statement, Grassley said he supported Issa’s position.
“The Attorney General wants to trade a briefing and the promise of delivering some small, unspecified set of documents tomorrow for a free pass today. He wants to turn over only what he wants to turn over and not give us any information about what he’s not turning over. That’s unacceptable. I’m not going to buy a pig in a poke. Chairman Issa is right to move forward to seek answers about a disastrous government operation,” he said.
Holder said his “extraordinary” offer was made in “good faith” and that the DOJ has provided an “unprecedented” number of documents related to the probe.
A report by the Congressional Research Service on Congressional oversight of the DOJ offers a broad view of Congress’ legal authority to demand internal documents.
The report says that from 1920 to 2007, Congress has “consistently sought and obtained” internal DOJ documents and successfully demanded information “from the Attorney General down to subordinate personnel,” adding that court precedents have affirmed broad Congressional investigative authority in nearly every instance, regardless of whether the documents relate to ongoing criminal investigations.