If you're still under the impression that "Fast and Furious" is a movie about car racing, then you probably haven't been paying attention to the even higher-octane showdown between House Oversight Committee Chairman Republican Darrell Issa and Attorney General Eric Holder.
In the latest dramatic developments, Issa last week threatened a vote to hold the AG in contempt of congress for failing to cough up documents subpoenaed by the committee, a move Democrats blasted as "irresponsible, unprecedented, and contrary to the rule of law."
Holder duly agreed to produce some of the documents, and Issa indicated a willingness to back down. But the situation is volatile, and a contempt hearing could still happen as early as Wednesday.
So how did it come to this?
The war between Oversight and the Department of Justice began back around March, 2011, when Issa announced an investigation into revelations that an operation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), a division of the DOJ, called Project Gunrunner, purposely allowed hundreds of guns to be trafficked into Mexico. The purpose of the operation, known internally as "Fast and Furious," was to crack down on the trafficking of illegal guns across the U.S. border to drug cartels in Mexico. Beginning in late 2009, when ATF agents would let the guns "walk" and keep track of where they ended up.
It didn't quite work out as planned.
According to some estimates, under the operation more than 1,700 guns, including AK-47s, flowed from the U.S. to Mexican cartels, and ATF agents lost track of most of them. Some of the weapons resurfaced at crime scenes, some involving shootouts with Mexican officials, with two linked to the death of a U.S. border agent. According to CBS News, ATF continued to encourage gun store owners to keep selling to the same suspicious clients, even after learning that the guns might be connected to those crimes.
Though the Department of Justice conducted its own probe of the operation, which is ongoing, Issa announced an "independent" investigation of the DOJ – "specifically, of allegations that the reckless and inappropriate decisions of Department officials have created a serious public safety hazard."
Which brings us to The Case of the Undisclosed Documents, a saga that's been going on ever since. Initially, Issa requested a slew of documents that would purportedly show how the DOJ came to withdraw a February 4, 2011 statement denying that senior officials found anything improper that went down during the Fast and Furious operation. As Holder wrote last week, the letter was withdrawn because "the Department's understanding of the facts underlying Fast and Furious became more developed, particularly as evidence came to light that was inconsistent with the initial denials provided to Department personnel. Over time, Department leadership came to recognize that Fast and Furious was fundamentally flawed."
Issa says he's being "stonewalled," and has indicated he thinks the DOJ is covering up that knowledge of Fast and Furious tactics went far up the department's chain of command. There has also been the ludicrous suggestion, by the National Rifle Association and several House Republicans, that the Obama administration let the guns cross the border so it could eventually make a better case to enact harsher domestic gun laws. The documents would also purportedly provide information about the alleged mistreatment of whistleblowers who came forward about the operation.
The DOJ has repeatedly denied these allegations. "Far from reflecting a 'cover-up,' as some have claimed, the lack of documents makes clear that these tactics had their origin in the field in Arizona and not among Department leaders in Washington," Deputy Attorney General James Cole wrote in a May letter to Issa.
Whatever the DOJ says, it's pretty clear that Issa's dogged pursuit of these documents is, at least in part, politically motivated (for one thing, as the Democrats have pointed out, Issa has been "systematically refusing to investigate gunwalking operations during the Bush Administration and [disregarding] clear evidence that contradicts the political narrative in the Contempt Citation."). Though it is not unprecedented for a member of the executive branch to be held in contempt, it's pretty rare (the most recent example is from 2008, when Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee began proceedings against former Bush officials Karl Rove and Harriet Miers).
Usually these things work themselves out through negotiations – which is what we're starting to see between Issa and Holder. On the other hand, this is an election year, and contempt proceedings against members of the executive branch are largely about optics. Washington attorney Stan Brand recently said that these types of contempt proceedings are "mostly for show" and, in practice, unenforceable. "I can’t really take it seriously because as you know for the last 30 years the Justice Department – both Republicans and Democrats – has taken the position that you can’t enforce the contempt statute against members of the executive branch who assert privilege or some other defense to the subpoenas," Brand told Ryan J. Reilly of TPM.
A big part of the show is demonizing Holder himself. Several Republicans have recently called for Holder to step down, among them Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), and Jon Cornyn (R-TX), who did so to Holder's face in a Senate Judiciary hearing just last week. In one Republican primary debate, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum also both called for Holder's resignation. Romney, for his part, has steered clear of the issue so far, but he won't be able to for long if RNC Chair Reince Priebus gets his way. Priebus says that "Fast and Furious" will be a central 2012 campaign theme, so even if the contempt proceedings go away, it doesn't look like Holder will be off the hook anytime soon.