Holder seeks a deal on 'Fast and Furious' documents
POSTED: Tuesday, June 12, 2012 - 10:00am
UPDATED: Tuesday, June 12, 2012 - 11:11am
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Attorney General Eric Holder offered Tuesday to negotiate with congressional leaders on turning over documents involving the botched "Fast and Furious" gun-running sting operation to avoid what he said could become a constitutional crisis.
At a hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee, Holder insisted he had the authority to withhold the documents sought by congressional subpoenas, but told Republican Sen. Charles Grassley he was ready to work out a deal to avoid a possible contempt vote by the House.
"I am prepared to make compromises with regards to the documents to be made available," Holder said, saying the move would be "an attempt to avoid a constitutional crisis."
At the same time, Holder said congressional Republicans must be open to working out an agreement.
"I've got to have a willing partner," Holder said. "I've extended my hand and I'm waiting to hear back."
A House committee announced Monday it will consider a contempt measure against Holder next week for failing to provide requested information on the "Fast and Furious" operation.
The House Oversight Committee will consider the contempt citation on June 20, said a statement by the panel. A vote by the panel could occur that day, and the measure would then require approval from the full chamber.
Monday's announcement escalated a high-stakes, election-year face-off over what Republicans say is Holder's failure to respond to a subpoena for Justice documents on the botched operation.
The Justice Department has acknowledged that the program, which allowed illegally purchased guns to "walk" across the border into Mexico, was badly flawed. Such sting operations have now been prohibited.
The department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which lost track of more than a thousand firearms after they crossed the border, found itself under fire when two of the lost weapons turned up at the scene of the killing of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in December 2010.
Terry's family has been among critics of the Holder Justice Department's handling of the case.
On Tuesday, Grassley raised the matter in his opening statement and again in direct questioning of Holder, noting that questions remain almost a year after three whistleblowers testified before the House Oversight Committee about gun-running.
"Here we are, one year later, and the Terry family is still waiting for answers. They're still waiting for justice," the Iowa senator said, noting assertions by House Republicans that sealed requests for wiretaps under the Fast and Furious program showed top officials in the Justice Department knew about the questionable operation long before so far acknowledged.
Holder repeated what he told a House committee last week -- that he read the affidavits and summaries and found no incriminating information.
"You reach conclusions on the basis of hindsight," Holder said. "I try to put myself in the place of people actually looking at the material at the time."
Holder has testified at eight congressional hearings on Operation Fast and Furious, and he has consistently maintained that he knew nothing about the flawed tactics until early last year.
The chairman of the House Oversight Commmitee, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California, said Monday that the panel wants documents that explain why Holder and the Justice Department decided months later to retract a February 4, 2011, letter to Congress that denied any knowledge by senior officials of improper tactics in the gun-running sting.
"Specifically, the Justice Department has refused to turn over critical documents on the grounds that they show internal department deliberations and were created after February 4, 2011 -- the date Justice issued a false denial to Congress," Issa said in Monday's statement. "Contempt will focus on the failure to provide these post February 4th documents."
Issa left the door open for a resolution before the contempt measure comes up, saying that if Holder "decides to produce these subpoenaed documents, I am confident we can reach agreement on other materials and render the process of contempt unnecessary."
The Justice Department slammed the House committee's Monday announcement, calling it "unfortunate and unwarranted."
"From the beginning, Chairman Issa has distorted the facts, ignored testimony and flung inaccurate accusations at the Attorney General and others, and this latest move fits within that tired political playbook that has so many Americans disillusioned with Washington," said spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler.
The Justice Department is involved in discussions with committee staff regarding a "mutually acceptable resolution to their requests for information," she added.
The committee's top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, similarly criticized the decision to move forward with possible contempt proceedings.
"It is unfortunate that the committee scheduled a contempt vote against the Attorney General when federal law prohibits him from turning over many of the subpoenaed documents, but I am guardedly optimistic that a path forward exists that will serve the legitimate interests of the Committee," Cummings said in a Monday statement.
Various groups -- among them The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, The National Action Network and the National Women's Law Center -- have sent letters urging the committee to reconsider the effort to cite Holder for contempt.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Barack Obama maintains "absolute confidence" in the attorney general.
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