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Holder Should Act Faster, Congress Less Furiously

June 21 (Bloomberg) -- Democrats say efforts by the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress over a botched gun-sting operation are a partisan stunt. They are right about the politics. The committee is nevertheless right on the merits.

Holder should turn over the Justice Department documents Congress has demanded.

Here’s why. The controversy stems from a misguided effort to stem the flow of U.S. weapons to Mexican drug cartels. Starting under the George W. Bush administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed thousands of guns to be bought by so-called straw purchasers in the U.S. The agency then attempted to track the firearms as they found their way into the hands of Mexican traffickers.

Operation Fast and Furious, initiated in 2009, was the largest and last of these “gunwalking” stings, involving more than 2,000 firearms. It was a monumental failure: Only about a third of the guns have been recovered, and two weapons involved were found where U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was fatally shot on Dec. 14, 2010.

The only way to salvage something positive from this fiasco is to investigate what went wrong and learn from the mistakes. Instead, the Justice Department seems intent on burying the past. On Feb. 4, 2011, Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich sent a letter to Congress insisting that any allegation that the “ATF ‘sanctioned’ or otherwise knowingly allowed the sale of assault weapons to a straw purchaser who then transported them to Mexico -- is false.” Holder repeatedly stated that he and other top officials had no knowledge of the gunwalking operations until after Terry’s death.

This line of defense dissolved after several ATF whistle-blowers, supported by documents leaked to them by the U.S. attorney for Arizona, told the news media and Congress that agency officials were fully aware that straw buyers were moving guns into Mexico. In December the department formally withdrew the Feb. 4 letter, and Holder lamely told Congress that the officials responsible for the false claims “did not know at the time that the information that they provided was inaccurate.” (On Wednesday, Holder also retracted a statement he had made to the Senate Judiciary Committee that Michael Mukasey, an attorney general in the Bush administration, had been briefed on similar gunwalking operations during his tenure.)

Is it any wonder that Representative Darrell Issa, the California Republican who heads the oversight panel, wants Holder to turn over internal documents that might explain how the Justice Department came to realize its initial denials were false?

Admittedly, Issa has handled the hearings divisively and cynically. His committee’s Republican majority passed by party line a resolution to hold Holder in criminal contempt, which the Barack Obama administration has met with a claim of executive privilege. Both sides may feel they have something to gain from a high-profile partisan fight over constitutional prerogatives, but it only distracts from the real issue at hand.

Congress has had a hard time enforcing contempt charges, usually opting for negotiation, which would be the best result here. Any deal should involve releasing the full cache of documents. Holder and the administration have not made a convincing case that there are national-security or law-enforcement secrets at risk in the materials, which consist primarily of e-mails exchanged within the administration.

All that matters in the end is for the public -- and the family of Brian Terry -- to know as much as possible about what went wrong with Operation Fast and Furious.

Read more opinion online from Bloomberg View. Subscribe to receive a daily e-mail highlighting new View editorials, columns and op-ed articles.

Today’s highlights: the editors on Operation Fast and Furious and on why the Fed needs to be more aggressive; Caroline Baum on the mistake underlying the euro; Michael Kinsley on our love-hate relationship with leaks; Ezra Klein on the news media’s dreadful horse-race coverage; Carl Pope on renewable energy in emerging markets.

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