WASHINGTON (CN) - A joint congressional report released on Wednesday faults the Obama-era Justice Department for showing a "lack of respect for congressional oversight" over the six-year investigation into the ill-fated Fast and Furious operation to arrest gun traffickers.
The 263-page report bashes the Justice Department for hiding documents from congressional committees that would have provided insights into the death of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in December 2010.
It also says the department conducted a "deeply flawed" investigation into the Fast and Furious program after whistleblowers raised concerns about it to the Senate.
"Many key documents are still being withheld, but the body of evidence available at this point is sufficiently robust to conclude that there are fundamental flaws in the department's approach to responding to congressional requests for documents and information generally and in the department's tactics in dealing with questions about the Fast and Furious case in particular," the report states.
The report is based on documents a federal judge ordered the Justice Department to deliver to the House Oversight Committee in 2014. President Barack Obama had previously asserted executive privilege over some of the documents reproduced in the report, most of which are emails from Justice Department officials discussing Terry's death and responding to the ensuing investigation.
Terry died in a firefight with armed bandits near the Mexican border with Arizona in 2010. Two assault rifles found at the scene were eventually traced to Operation Fast and Furious, a federal operation in which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms allowed straw purchasers to buy guns and deliver them to Mexican cartels. The bureau lost track of more than 2,000 guns involved in the operation, according to the report.
The analysis, issued by the Republican chairmen of the House Oversight and Senate Judiciary Committees, details roadblocks the Justice Department put up to the congressional investigation into the program.
It covers the period of February to October 2011, when the House Oversight Committee issued a subpoena that eventually resulted in the House voting to hold then-Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress.
Key in the report is a Feb. 4, 2011 letter then-Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich sent to Sen. Chuck Grassley denying the ATF's role in the Fast and Furious gun walking operation. Documents in the report show the Justice Department at the time that letter was sent knew that weapons used in Terry's death were linked to the program, according to the report.
The Justice Department disavowed the letter that December after more information about the program came to light, though the report finds fault with the Justice Department's internal investigation, saying it "allowed people with conflicts of interest to influence the investigation."
The report also claims the Justice Department dodged information requests from Grassley because he was a member of the minority party at the time.
"I also am reluctant to empower Grassley's attempt as [ranking minority member] to conduct oversight by organizing a briefing for the committee when the committee thru its chairman has expressed no interest in conducting oversight and indeed has implied the opposite," Paul Colborn, who worked at the Office of Legal Counsel, wrote in an email in April 2011 reproduced in the report.
The final finding in the report claims Holder was intimately involved in crafting the public relations effort to counter the congressional investigation and information leaking from whistleblowers within the government, often to the detriment of addressing concerns about the Fast and Furious program.
"Documents obtained by Congress demonstrate the department's failure to adequately supervise field offices or to focus on fixing the problems brought to light in the controversy over Operation Fast and Furious," the report states. "Instead, senior leaders of the department, including Attorney General Eric Holder, were disproportionately fixated on countering the congressional investigation, massaging the media and protecting the department's public image."
Democrats did not contribute to the report. Rep. Stephen Lynch, who served as the top Democrat at the House Oversight Committee hearing at which the report was released, said that weakens its findings.
The report is the third the committees have released jointly, with the first being an overview of the Fast and Furious operation released in 2012. The committees plan to release a fourth report focusing on the investigation from the time of the subpoena to June 28, 2012, when Holder was held in contempt.
The House Oversight hearing that accompanied the release of the latest report featured testimony from Grassley, who said the six-year fight with the executive branch shows that "our system of checks and balances is broken." Grassley said he is working with others senators to "modernize the rules of engagement in Congressional oversight," which he said would make it easier for lawmakers to get information from the administration in investigations.
"Clearly Congress needs to do something," Grassley said at the hearing. "It cannot take years for this body to get answers from a co-equal branch of government about information that has no legal basis to stay hidden from the representatives of the American people."
The hearing also served as a look-back on the scandal, featuring emotional testimony from Josephine Terry, Brian's mother, as well as a statement from John Dodson, the ATF agent who first blew the whistle on the Fast and Furious operation.
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