Update, Nov. 8: U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, worried that Operation Fast and Furious could have affected Texas, pressed U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday about the scope of the program.
The exchange came at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing where Holder faced questions from lawmakers about when he became aware of Fast and Furious, and who in the Justice Department was accountable for the operation’s problems.
In opening remarks, Holder denounced the tactic of gun-walking as “unacceptable” and said Fast and Furious “should never have happened, and it must never happen again.”
He pushed back, however, against some criticisms of the operation that he called “inaccurate,” “irresponsible” and “overheated rhetoric.” Fast and Furious was a “local, Arizona-based operation,” he told lawmakers, and it “was a flawed response to, not the cause of, the flow of illegal guns from the United States into Mexico.”
Holder said the operation’s mistakes “should not deter or distract us from our critical mission to disrupt the dangerous flow of firearms along our southwest border.” And he called on Congress to provide the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives with needed resources and to fund the Justice Department’s request for teams of anti-gun-trafficking agents.
Cornyn asked Holder whether he still contended that Fast and Furious was a “local” operation. Holder said he meant it was “a federal law enforcement operation that was of local concern. It was not a national operation.”
“It metastasized, didn’t it?” Cornyn asked. “To Mexico, it metastasized to Texas and obviously in Arizona, so it wasn’t certainly local in effect. Do you agree with that?”
Holder said the impact of mistakes made in Fast and Furious will be felt in Mexico and in the United States "probably for years to come.”
Cornyn also asked Holder if he would apologize to the family of slain Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.
“I certainly regret what happened to Agent Brian Terry,” Holder said. “I can only imagine the pain that his family has had to deal with.”
But he said it was unfair to assume that the mistakes of Fast and Furious directly led to Terry's death.
WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. John Cornyn is set to confront U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday about allegations of a Texas-based gun-walking operation similar to the controversial Fast and Furious operation in Arizona that is linked to the 2010 murder of a U.S. border patrol agency.
Cornyn and Holder are set to meet at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the Republican lawmaker “hopes that Attorney General Holder will finally come clean on what he knew and exactly when he knew it, and reassure him unequivocally that his department never engaged in gun-walking tactics in Texas,” said spokesman Drew Brandewie in an e-mail to The Texas Tribune.
Cornyn, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, and other lawmakers have pressed the U.S. Justice Department over “Operation Fast and Furious,” which the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives operated from late 2009 to earlier this year. The ATF allowed weapons to cross the Arizona border into Mexico in an effort to trace them to drug cartels. Guns tied to the operation were found near where U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed in 2010.
Cornyn raised concerns to Holder in August about the possible existence of a Texas-based operation similar to Fast and Furious. Last month, the senator provided more details on why he suspects a Texas program existed and asked Grassley and U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, to investigate. He also asked them to look into whether the purchase of a weapon linked to a second murder, that of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Jaime Zapata, was part of a broader Texas program.
The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment on Monday about lawmakers’ concerns or the hearing. In his prepared testimony, according to The Associated Press, Holder is expected to say of Fast and Furious, "Like each of you, I want to know why and how firearms that should have been under surveillance could wind up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels."
A Justice Department official told Grassley last month that ongoing investigations limit the department’s ability to respond to lawmakers’ questions. The official, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Welch, said the department understood ATF was unaware of the weapon purchase linked to the Zapata case until after the murder.
Grassley and Issa sent new questions about the Texas allegations to the Justice Department, saying that response was months late and “completely failed to answer the key questions.”
The hearing is set for 10 a.m. Tuesday EST in Washington and will be webcast via the committee’s website. Check the Tribune for updates after the hearing.