11:39 p.m. | Updated
WASHINGTON – As Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. prepares to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, Justice Department officials praised the House Republican leadership – including Speaker John Boehner – for opening negotiations with the Justice Department about resolving a dispute over subpoenaed information related to the botched gun-trafficking investigation dubbed Operation Fast and Furious.
The move comes as Representative Darrell Issa, the California Republican who is chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has threatened to hold Mr. Holder in contempt over the subpoena, which he issued last fall. It suggests that administration officials see a potential conflict between Mr. Issa and Mr. Boehner over pushing forward with a contempt citation.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole said in a letter on Tuesday to Mr. Boehner and other House Republican leaders that their staffs in recent weeks “have had a number of constructive conversations” that held out the prospect of a “mutually acceptable resolution of these issues.” He said those conversations “stand in contrast” with the tone Mr. Issa had adopted, including in a letter of his own on Tuesday.
But in a statement later on Tuesday, Michael Steel, a spokesman for Mr. Boehner, portrayed a united front with Mr. Issa against the department over Fast and Furious.
“Staff for the speaker, other leadership offices, and Chairman Issa have been encouraging Attorney General Holder’s staff to comply for weeks or months to no avail, but there have certainly been no direct talks between the speaker and attorney general, and the department is still stonewalling,” Mr. Steel said.
Mr. Boehner – along with the House majority leader, Eric Cantor, and the Republican whip, Kevin McCarthy – stepped into the conflict on May 18, sending a letter to Mr. Holder that demanded more answers but also narrowed the request to two topics: who, if anyone, on his leadership team knew about the tactics being used in Fast and Furious and whether senior Justice Department officials had misled Congress in response to a subpoena.
Mr. Issa also signed that letter. But in prepared testimony Mr. Holder sent to Congress on Tuesday ahead of his Thursday appearance, he confirmed that the Justice Department is now talking with Mr. Boehner’s staff in an effort to settle the subpoena dispute.
“We welcome the recent engagement of Congressional leadership in the Department’s continued efforts to satisfy the legitimate goals of Congressional oversight while, at the same time, preserving the integrity and independence of the Department’s ongoing criminal investigations and prosecutions,” Mr. Holder’s prepared testimony states.
He adds: “Leadership’s recent letter represented a promising step toward reaching a resolution, as it accomplished two things: first, it narrowed the universe of documents still in dispute between the Justice Department and the House Oversight Committee; second, it identified the specific questions that remain of concern to Leadership. We are confident that the constructive discussions that have occurred since this letter will result in a mutually acceptable resolution.”
Meanwhile on Tuesday, Mr. Issa announced in another letter — signed by him alone — that he had obtained copies of applications for wiretaps that the Justice Department has been refusing to disclose. The documents, he asserted, show that administration officials knew more about disputed tactics than they have maintained.
“Even a perfunctory review of the wiretap applications amply demonstrates the immense detail documenting gun-walking tactics that should have prompted senior officials in the Criminal Division to shut down the program immediately,” Mr. Issa wrote in the letter to Mr. Holder, which his office made public.
But Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on Mr. Issa’s House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said in a letter to Mr. Issa that his counterpart had mischaracterized the contents and significance of the documents, including by omitting critical facts “that completely undermines your conclusions and distorts your representations.”
Tracy Schmaler, a Justice Department spokeswoman, also said that Mr. Issa’s claim “continues to distort the facts,” reiterating that senior officials “were not aware of the flawed tactics in Fast and Furious until they became public in early 2011.” But she said the department could not comment on the contents of court-sealed applications related to an continuing criminal case, expressing concern that they had been illegally leaked.
Fast and Furious was an investigation by Arizona-based agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives into a suspected gun-trafficking network linked to a Mexican drug cartel. Agents used a tactic called “gun-walking” – failing to swiftly interdict guns purchased by low-level figures in an effort to build a bigger case – and lost track of some 2,000 firearms, including two later found near a shootout in December 2010 during which an American border patrol agent, Brian Terry, was killed.
It has since emerged that Arizona-based A.T.F. agents had used similar investigative tactics in several other gun-trafficking cases dating back to the Bush administration, though Fast and Furious involved far more weapons.
Mr. Issa has been investigating Fast and Furious for more than a year, and has frequently accused senior Obama administration officials of initiating or authorizing the tactics. They, however, maintain that they did not know about the operation’s tactics until early 2011.
Against that backdrop, the Fast and Furious wiretap applications have been a focus because they were reviewed by senior officials in the Justice Department’s criminal division from March to July of 2010. Mr. Issa did not release the text of the wiretap applications, but wrote that at the same time they were signing off on the applications, senior Justice Department officials had “received information” about the contours and activities of the network, and that agents had sometimes broken off surveillance of suspects who had just purchased weapons.
Mr. Issa has sometimes made exaggerated claims about Fast and Furious, admitting earlier this year at a hearing that “there have been times in which we did not get the information right.” In his own letter to Mr. Issa, Mr. Cummings – who has also seen the applications – accused him of doing so again.
Parts of Mr. Cummings’s letter, laying out what he portrayed as key omissions in Mr. Issa’s account of the sealed documents, were redacted. But he wrote that the investigation had already learned that senior department attorneys reviewed only the summaries of applications to make sure that they met the legal standard for a wiretap before submitting them to a judge – not the underlying affidavits and other details of a case.