U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. has been asked to provide documents on… (Chip Somodevilla, Getty…)
Reporting from Washington — A leading House Republican investigating the ATF operation dubbed Fast and Furious subpoenaed documents from Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. on Wednesday, escalating the confrontation over the botched gun-tracing program.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, issued a far-ranging subpoena seeking all communications between Holder, his deputies and the White House in connection with the now-defunct operation run by the Phoenix field office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Issa contends the attorney general knew more about the operation than he has told congressional investigators. Holder strongly denies that.
Full coverage: ATF's Fast and Furious scandal
Fast and Furious, started in 2009, ended in January. ATF agents allowed illegal "straw" buyers to purchase more than 2,000 firearms, expecting to track them to drug cartel leaders in Mexico. But many of the guns vanished, only for some to turn up at crime scenes on both sides of the border. The Mexican government says the weapons have been found at about 170 crime scenes there. And two were found in Arizona where a Border Patrol agent was shot to death.
"It's time we know the whole truth," Issa said in a statement. "The documents this subpoena demands will provide answers to questions that Justice officials have tried to avoid since this investigation began eight months ago."
The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, called the 22-point subpoena a "fishing expedition" that seeks tens of thousands of pages of sensitive national security materials beyond the scope of Fast and Furious.
"Rather than legitimate fact-gathering, this looks more like a political stunt," Cummings said.
The Justice Department said it had been providing Issa's committee with documents and information about the operation and would continue to do so.
"We've made clear from the beginning that the department intends to work with the committee to answer legitimate questions," Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said. "However, this subpoena shows that Chairman Issa is more interested in generating headlines than in real oversight important to the American people."
Issa and Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, have been investigating Fast and Furious as GOP lawmakers have intensified criticism of Holder's role. Holder has said he did not know the scope or details of the operation until it became public this year.
President Obama defended Holder last week, saying neither he nor his attorney general knew federal authorities were allowing illegal gun sales.
Also last week, Holder issued a sternly worded rebuke to allegations that he was misleading Congress. After Republican Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona suggested the administration was an accessory to the crimes that have been committed with the lost guns, Holder said such "irresponsible and inflammatory rhetoric" could not go unchecked.