WASHINGTON (CN) – House Republicans grilled Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday over “arrogant and dangerous” policies in an oversight hearing on the Department of Justice.
Major topics included the bungled Fast and Furious program, voter fraud and prosecutorial misconduct in the trial of Sen. Ted Stevens trial.
Sponsored by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Operation Fast and Furious is under investigation for encouraging the illegal sale of guns so that agents could track them to the leaders of Mexican drug cartels. The bureau lost track of hundreds of firearms by letting them pass into the hands of gun smugglers.
Some blame the operation for the 2010 murder of Border Partrolmen Brian Terry at the hands of one cartel that dealt with the smuggled guns.
Coming to Holder’s aid in the four-hour hearing, Democrats noted that the DOJ released 7,600 pages of documents on the program.
But this disclosure failed to impress Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith.
“The Justice Department still has not provided enough information about Operation Fast and Furious so that the American public and Congress can judge who in the department bears responsibility for the decisions that led to Agent Brian Terry’s death,” said Smith, R-Texas. “The Justice Department refuses to comply with Congressional subpoenas that may shed light on why this program was authorized and who had knowledge of inappropriate tactics.”
Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., pleaded with his colleagues to question Holder with respect.
Holder said he first learned of the operation after he received a letter in February 2011, a little over two months after Agent Terry’s death.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. said that the response did not answer the question of when he found out the program was a failure.
“Mr. Attorney General, you’re not a good witness,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. “A good witness answers the questions asked.”
Conyers and other Democrats complained that Issa wasn’t allowing Holder to answer.
Issa claimed, however, said his line of questioning made maximum use of the five-minutes he was allotted for questioning.”
Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, complained about time restrictions as well.
“If we’re from the South, we should get more than five minutes,” Poe said.
Poe asked Holder how many Mexicans had been killed as a result of Fast and Furious, and how the program may have damaged relations with Mexico.
Of Mexican deaths, Holder responded: “I don’t know. I think there may have been some.”
Committee Democrats were interested in other areas of DOJ controversy.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., noted that President Barack Obama campaigned against the prosecution of medical marijuana dispensaries, but has nevertheless gone after several such entities since taking office.
Pointing to “these little things called facts,” Holder said that the DOJ raided dispensaries run by people “taking advantage of state laws” and going beyond “what the states have authorized.”
In Colorado, for example, the DOJ shut down a medical marijuana dispensary because of its close proximity to a school.
Rep. Pedro Pierlusi, a member of Puerto Rico’s New Progressive Party, commended Holder’s work protecting the borders with Canada and Mexico, but said more needed to be done with the Caribbean border, citing Puerto Rico’s growing problems with violence and illegal drugs. Holder agreed.
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., stated his concern over airline and grocery monopolies controlling commerce in middle America. Holder promised to look into the matter.
Other Democrats used their time to highlight the Department’s victories.
Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C. applauded his work for stopping counterfeit pharmaceuticals, working for an indictment in the case against MegaUpload and protecting the country from cyber attacks.
Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., commended Holder’s policies on contract fraud, whistle-blower protection and upholding the False Claims Act.
But Holder took more heat over the bungled prosecution of the late Sen. Stevens, and the case against the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, an alleged Hamas supporter.
“When I hear an attorney general come before this committee and cavalierly say there is a political aspect to this job, that offends me,” Rep. Louis Gohmert, R-Texas, said. “Why in the world would your department be more responsive to a terrorist group than to this committee?”
Gohmert said the department gave the Holy Land Foundation’s defense documents that it has refused to give to Congress.
Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., questioned Holder on the evidence prosecutors withheld evidence from Stevens, who was convicted and then cleared of corruption.
Holder noted that he was the one who dismissed the case, and said there are conflicting reports as to whether the evidence was withheld intentionally or recklessly.
Lungren and other Republicans harshly criticized Holder for not firing anybody over the matter.
Republicans also brought up a story in which a young, white activist was able to obtain Holder’s ballot in a Washington polling site by claiming his identification was in the car.
“If you have to show ID to get into federal court or a government building, shouldn’t you have to show it to vote?” Lungren asked. “I have to show my ID to board an airplane and fly to D.C.”
Holder answered: “There are terrorists trying to blow up planes.”
Though the hearing often turned to questions about Operation Fast and Furious, Holder did deliver a prepared statement that highlighted the DOJ’s record in upholding civil rights, curbing gang violence, seizing billions of dollars from Mexican drug cartels, reducing the rate of violence in Native American communities and protecting law enforcement across the country.
He also touted his $25 billion settlement with mortgage servicers.
“For every dollar we have spent combating health care fraud, we have returned $7,” Holder said.
“We’ve identified and we have stopped multiple threats from terrorist groups,” he added.
Each member of the 40-person committee interviewed Holder in the hearing.