Facing a possible contempt vote by a House committee, Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday offered to release more records of a botched gun probe and proposed a quick face-to-face meeting with the committee's chairman.
In a two-page letter to Rep. Darrell Issa, Holder promised to provide documents he has so far refused to turn over, arguing they were outside the scope of the committee's investigation of the "Fast and Furious" firearms probe. The offer follows a decision by Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, to narrow the committee's request to exclude sensitive law enforcement information relating to the investigation.
Holder called his offer "an extraordinary accommodation of the committee's interest" and urged Issa to meet with him by Monday.
"The Department's willingness to provide these materials is a serious, good faith effort to bring this matter to an amicable resolution," he wrote. "However, because as the Chairman only you have the authority to bind the Committee, I continue to believe that a meeting is required both to assure that there are no misunderstandings about this matter and to confirm that the elements of the proposal we are making will be deemed sufficient to render the process of contempt unnecessary."
In response, a spokeswoman for Issa's committee, Becca Glover Watkins, said Holder's letter "only seems to indicate a willingness to offer a selective telling rather than full disclosure of key events that occurred after February 4, 2011.
"We expect the Justice Department to quickly provide necessary details about how it is prepared to alter its opposition to producing subpoenaed documents," the spokeswoman added, without addressing Holder's proposal for a face-to-face meeting with Issa.
Issa, a California Republican, has called a vote on a contempt of Congress resolution for next week, a move Holder's spokeswoman dismissed as something from "a tired political playbook."
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives launched "Operation Fast and Furious" out of Arizona to track weapons purchases by Mexican drug cartels. But it lost track of more than 1,000 firearms that the agency had allowed straw buyers to carry across the border, and found itself under fire when two of the lost weapons turned up at the scene of the killing of a U.S. Border Patrol agent.
The documents Holder offered to share include details of how the Justice Department's knowledge of the gun-running probe "evolved throughout 2011" and how it came to retract a February 2011 letter that denied senior officials knew of improper tactics in the botched sting.
"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," Holder wrote Thursday. "Over time, Department leadership came to recognize that Fast and Furious was fundamentally flawed."
Justice officials and Issa's committee have been battling for months over the materials, with Issa accusing the attorney general of stonewalling the investigation into "Fast and Furious." The Justice Department says it already has handed over more than 7,000 pages of records to House investigators, and says the remaining material Issa wants could jeopardize criminal prosecutions.
Both Issa's Wednesday letter and Holder's response struck a more conciliatory tone. But the two sides remain far apart, and senior House GOP aides say the Obama administration is reluctant to detail an embarrassing program. And with five months left before the fall election, the issue has become a political battle that few expect will be ramped down before November.
Holder fended off a call for his resignation Tuesday at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, when Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, accused him of misleading Congress over the Fast and Furious program. Holder called Cornyn's complaint "almost breathtaking in its inaccuracy" and added, "I don't have any intention of resigning."