President Obama speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White… (Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg )
President Obama insisted neither he nor Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. knew federal ATF agents were permitting illegal gun purchases on the southwest border, even as Republican lawmakers released new documents showing the attorney general was given general briefings on the Fast and Furious gun-tracking operation.
"He's indicated that he was not aware of what was happening in Fast and Furious," the president said in support of Holder, speaking at a White House news conference Thursday. "Certainly I was not. And I think both he and I would have been very unhappy if somebody had suggested that guns were allowed to pass through that could have been prevented by the United States of America."
He noted that the Department of Justice inspector general's office, at Holder's request, is investigating the 15-month program at the ATF's Phoenix field office. More than 2,000 firearms were lost; two turned up at the fatal shooting of a U.S. Border Patrol agent last December.
"I have complete confidence in him," Obama said of Holder. "And I've got complete confidence in the process to figure out who, in fact, was responsible for that decision [to launch Fast and Furious] and how it got made."
The remarks were Obama's strongest in defense of Holder, who has come under intense criticism by congressional Republicans that he misled lawmakers in Capitol Hill testimony last May. He said then he learned of Fast and Furious "for the first time over the last few weeks."
But Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, released redacted copies of five weekly reports to Holder from Michael F. Walther, director of the National Drug Intelligence Center. They were sent in July and August of last year.
Each report briefly mentioned Fast and Furious and illegal purchasers who bought "1,500 firearms that were then supplied to Mexican drug trafficking cartels."
Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said the reports had been released earlier, and offered nothing new, especially as they did not alert Holder that guns were being intentionally allowed to "walk." She said, "It won't change the facts. The attorney general's testimony has been consistent and truthful."
On Thursday, Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked Holder to return to Capitol Hill and "clear this up as soon as possible." In the House, Rep. Raul R. Labrador (R-Idaho) called on the attorney general to resign.
"It is clear he has not been honest about the extent of his involvement with the failed Fast and Furious program and should not be entrusted with managing the Department of Justice," Labrador said.
Justice Department officials have countered that Holder in his testimony in May was referring to when he first learned of the "tactical components" of Fast and Furious – that agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed illegal gun purchases.
Obama praised Holder. "He has been very aggressive in going after gun-running and cash transactions that are going to these transnational drug cartels in Mexico," the president said.