Transcript: Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Sen. Chuck Grassley’s Q&A on Operation Fast and Furious

Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Operation Fast and Furious with Attorney General Eric Holder on Nov. 8, 2011

Transcript of Ranking Member Sen. Chuck Grassley’s (R-Iowa) Q&A: 

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. IMAGE SOURCE: Judiciary.Senate.gov

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa):

“I was going to start with those letters that you just referred to that I gave you on Jan. 31, so I won’t – you’ve introduced my question. So I’ll go immediately to my question. When we met that day, did you know that the guns that connected to an ATF operation had been found at the [Border Patrol Agent Brian] Terry murder scene?”

 

Attorney General Eric Holder:

“I did not.”

 

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa):

“Thank you. Less than 48 hour after Agent Terry died, your deputy was informed that guns found at the Terry scene traced back to Fast and Furious. We have emails and detailed briefing papers that went to [Gary G.] Grindler on Dec. 17th. Did Mr. Grindler ever say anything to you in December or January about the connection between the ATF and the guns found at Terry’s murder scene?”

 

Attorney General Eric Holder: 

“No, he did not. But I think it’s understandable in the sense that the information that was shared with him did not indicate that any of the tactics that we find in the flawed operation – Fast and Furious operation – were actually mentioned in the email that you referenced. So he did not share that information with me.”

 

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa):

“Documents produced by the department suggest that the deputy chief of staff spoke with U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke about Fast and Furious shortly after Agent Terry’s death. Did Mr. [Monty] Wilkinson say anything to you about the connection between Agent Terry’s death and the ATF operation?”

 

Attorney General Eric Holder:

“No, he did not. The conversations that they had were about a variety of things – as I looked at the e-mails now – that the possibility of me coming out to at some point talk about engage in a press conference and other matters. But there was no discussion between them of the tactics that are of concern with regard to Fast and Furious, and as a result of that Mr. Wilkinson did not share information with me about his contacts with former U.S. Attorney Burke.”

 

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa):

“Last week, the head of the criminal division, Lanny Breuer, said that he deeply regrets his failure to tell you about gun walking in Operation Wide Receiver. But what about his failure to tell Congress and correct false statements in the department’s letters to me on Feb. 4, 2011? Is that acceptable to you that he did not tell us about those false statements in the letter of Feb. 4, 2011?”

 

Attorney General Eric Holder: 

“Well, let me clear something up. The information that we shared with you on Feb. 4, 2011 in that response, there was information in that letter that was inaccurate. The letter could have been better crafted. In the crafting of that letter, people were relying on information provided to them by people who were – we thought – in the best position to know what was accurate – people in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, people at ATF, people who themselves now have indicated in their congressional testimony before the House that they were not aware of the tactics that were employed. As a result of that, the information that is contained in that Feb. 4, 2011 letter to you was not, in fact, accurate, and that is regrettable. I regret that.”

 

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa):

“Did he offer you his resignation because of that?”

 

Attorney General Eric Holder: 

“No, he has not. And I don’t expect to hear a resignation offer from Mr. Breuer.”

 

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa):

“You’re refusing to provide drafts of that Feb. 4 letter and emails about the drafts even though they have been subpoenaed by the House without a valid Constitutional privilege – that of course risk contempt of Congress. Why would you risk contempt of Congress to prevent us from finding out who reviewed the drafts of that letter and whether they knew they contained false statements?”

 

Attorney General Eric Holder:

“Well, we’ll certainly try to work with you in providing you with all the relevant information that we can. We will, however, act in a way that’s consistent with Attorneys General had made determination as to what information can be shared with congressional oversight committees and these Republican as well as Democratic Attorneys General. And I will act in a manner that is consistent with the history and the tradition of the department.”

 

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa):

“If those documents show that Mr. Breuer reviewed a draft of the letter before it went out and failed to correct the statements that he knew was false, would that be a reason for his resignation?”

 

Attorney General Eric Holder:

“That would be a reason for a concern. But I think the facts show that the people who were responsible for the drafting of the letter did not know at that time that the information that was contained in that letter was inaccurate. We do now know – looking back – that the information provided to you was inaccurate. As I said, it’s something that I regret.”

 

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa):

“Mr. Breuer’s deputy, Jason Weinstein, was also aware that ATF walked guns. He approved the wiretap applications for Fast and Furious. He briefed Judiciary Committee staff on Feb. 10, 2011 in response to my letters. Did Mr. Weinstein review a draft of the Feb. 4 letter before it was sent to me?”

 

Attorney General Eric Holder:

“I don’t know.”

 

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa):

“Who will be held accountable for allowing a letter to Congress with a statement that many people in the Justice Department knew was false?”

 

Attorney General Eric Holder:

“Well, again, I have to dispute with you, due respect, the assertion that people in the Justice Department knew it was false. People in the Justice Department who was responsible for the creation of that letter, again, relied on information provided to them that they thought was accurate. We only know that the information was inaccurate in hindsight. At the time the letter was prepared, our best thought was that the information supplied was, in fact, correct.”

 

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa):

“Someone in the Justice Department leaked a document to the press along with talking points in an attempt to smear one of the ATF whistleblowers who testified before the House. This document was supposed to be so sensitive that you refuse to provide it to Congress, but then someone provided it to the press. The name of the criminal suspect in the document was deleted but the name of the ATF agent was not. This looks like a clear and intentional violation of the Privacy Act as well as an attempt at whistleblower retaliation. In a private phone conversation with me, you already told me that someone has been held accountable for this. But your staff refused to provide my staff with any details. Who was held accountable and how?”

 

Attorney General Eric Holder:

“You know, it almost pains me…And please don’t take this away from Sen. Grassley’s time. It pain me that, as you said, we had a private conversation. You sent me a handwritten note that I took very seriously. You and I worked together on a variety of things. I think I have a good relationship with you. You sent me a handwritten note that I looked at, took seriously, referred that letter to OPR or the IG – I’m not sure which of the two. I asked them to try to find out what happened. I called you to try to indicate to you that I had taken that matter seriously, that action had been taken. In a different time in Washington, I’m not sure that what you just said necessarily would have been shared with everyone here, but so be it. It’s a different time, I suppose. In response to your question…”

 

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa):

“You understand that I told you over the phone conversation that if you wanted me to not to ask this question that I said have your staff inform my staff – because I work very closely with my staff – and give the details so that I would know that this would be an inappropriate question to ask at this hearing.”

 

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.):

“We’ll let the Attorney General answer and then we’ll go to Sen. Kohl…It’s the same rule that I applied to myself.”

 

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa):

“No, you went 1 minute and 40 seconds over.”

 

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.): 

“No, I didn’t. I finished my question before my time was up. Go ahead, you can answer his question even though he asked it after his time was up.”

 

Attorney General Eric Holder: 

“With regard to the question, the matter is under investigation. There were a couple of leaks, and Those leaks are under investigation by the Inspector General, by the Office of Professional Responsibility. And I’m not in a position to comment on ongoing investigations.”

 

Second Round of Questions

 

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa):

“I got a couple of statements that I want to make before I ask a question.

“Before the Justice Department produced documents on Wide Receiver, my staff asked for additional information on previous cases of gun walking. However, on Sept. 30 the department declined to provide a briefing on such cases – so I’ve not limited my questions to Obama era operations. It’s hard to get straight answers if you don’t get these briefings. Now that the majority is interested in gun walking after nine months – and they’re in the majority – they’ll probably help us get our questions answered. But that’s one of the reason that I don’t want the inference to be left that I’m only interested in overseeing Democratic presidents on gun walking.

“I want to speak to something Sen. [Chuck] Schumer brought up, and I think his facts are entirely accurate. He referred to Wide Receiver but all the facts are in regard to the Hernandez case. I just want to make clear something that’s been widely misunderstood. The memo to the Attorney General [Michael] Mukasey referred to what is known as a ‘controlled delivery’ in a case called ‘Hernandez’ – not gun walking. U.S. coordinated with the Mexican law enforcement, which was supposed to be waiting on the other side of the border to interdict these weapons. So this is distinct from Fast and Furious and Operation Wide Receiver in which no effort was made to work with Mexico and guns were clearly walked.

“First question to you. Your Justice Department stood by its Feb. 4 denial to me even after I sent the first set of documents that showed otherwise. So a question for you, General Holder. You say that you are relying on others to correct the misstatements in the Feb. 4 letter yet Mr. Breuer himself admitted that he first knew first-hand that those statements were false at the time that they were made. Shouldn’t he then have notified either you and/or Congress at that time?

 

Attorney General Eric Holder:

Well, I think it’s one of the things that he admitted – as I remember his testimony – said he made a mistake in not bringing it to my attention the fact of his prior knowledge. He admits that he made a mistake in that regard.

 

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa):

Your deputy received a lot of details about Fast and Furious in March 2010 briefing – details that I believe should have raised red flags. For example, he was informed that just three straw buyers bought 670 guns. He was informed that the ATF followed them to stash houses. He was informed that the guns ended up in Mexico. So you can look at the chart with [Gary] Grindler’s own handwriting on these things here. Yet, you said a recent letter that Acting Deputy Attorney General Grindler was not told of the unacceptable tactics deployed in the Operation Fast and Furious briefing. If by unacceptable tactics you mean watching straw buyers illegally buy guns without seizing them before they get to Mexico, isn’t that exactly what he was told?”

 

Attorney General Eric Holder: 

“I don’t know exactly what he was told. As I understand what he was told was that he got this briefing as part of a monthly interaction that he had with the ATF. The person who did the briefing was Ken Melson, the acting director of the ATF, who at that point indicated that he did not know about these inappropriate tactics. Melson was also the person who briefed Chairman [Darrell] Issa, and as I understand it, gave him pretty much the same briefing. So I’m don’t know – I’m not sure that I’d draw the conclusions that you do from the basis of that from what I understand about what the nature of the interaction was. One of the things that I have been told was that, during the course of that briefing, the question of guns walking was not briefed to then Acting Deputy Attorney General Grindler.”

 

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa):

“One of the ATF briefing papers explicitly says that the strategy was ‘to allow the transfer of firearms to continue.’ One of the emails forwarding that paper says that it is ‘likely to go to DAG’ – which I assume is deputy attorney general – you can’t know for sure that no one informed him of that strategy.”

 

Attorney General Eric Holder: 

“Well as I’ve understood it, he was not told of the tactics – the gun walking tactics. As I’ve also been told that the picture that you have up there is of guns that were recovered in the United States. This is again that were delivered in the United States. Again, this is what I’ve been told. I’m not as intimately familiar with that interaction as perhaps you are but what I have been told is that the fact is that Acting Deputy Attorney General Grindler was not told about guns walking. He got the same briefing that Congressman Issa got from the same person – that is Ken Melson. Melson has indicated at the time he did that briefing, he was not aware of the gun walking techniques. In fact, he didn’t know – as best as I could remember – until March of 2011 when he talks about his stomach turning.”

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