Updated 3/7/18 5:11 p.m.
The Department of Justice announced today that it has entered into an agreement with the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to hand over documents relating to the Fast and Furious gun-running scandal from the late 2000s. The settlement ends six years of litigation in which the Committee sued the DOJ over their refusal to hand over documents.
Starting in the late 2000s, agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, set up a series of sting operations in which ATF agents allowed “straw purchasers” in the Tucson and Phoenix, Arizona areas, to buy firearms from licensed dealers and then illegally transport them over the Mexican border for ultimately deliver to gangs and drug cartels.
The investigation became known as “Operation Fast and Furious,” after the popular movie franchise, when it was discovered that several of the gun-running suspects were members of a local car club.
The goal of the ATF was to trace the weapons back to the criminals in the hopes of arresting higher-level cartel figures and drug traffickers. They reportedly monitored as many 2000 weapons purchased by suspected front purchasers, but only about 700 were ever recovered.
Firearms involved in the sting were soon discovered at crime scenes on both sides of the border. They were found at the scene of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry’s murder in December 2010. It was soon after Terry’s death that the gunwalking operation came to light, with numerous ATF agents coming forward to voice their dissent for the program. The issue became controversial on both sides of the border.
The House Oversight Committee began an investigation into what the attorney general at the time, Eric Holder knew about the operation. Holder had maintained he had only learned of the operation and its questionable tactics in the spring of 2011. But documents would later suggest that he had been briefed on the operation in as early as July of 2010.
Beginning in 2011, Congress began investigating and requesting documents from government agencies. Holder’s DOJ surrendered thousands of pages of documents but refused to hand over 1,300 pages Congress had subpoenaed that detailed how officials responded to Congressional and media inquiries into the ATF’s operations.
Holder maintained that surrendering those documents would violate longstanding DOJ practice. After a long standoff between the Holder and the Oversight Committee, then President Barack Obama exerted executive privilege over the documents. The Committee subsequently voted along party lines to hold Holder in contempt in June 2012 making the first sitting Cabinet member ever to be found in contempt by Congress.
Two months later the Committee filed the federal lawsuit against Holder over his refusal to surrender the documents. That lawsuit has been pending since.
In making today’s announcement, Attorney General Jeff Sessions expressed the hope that the release of the documents would begin the process of bringing the questions about Fast and Furious to a close. “The Department of Justice under my watch is committed to transparency and the rule of law. This settlement agreement is an important step to make sure that the public finally receives all the facts related to Operation Fast and Furious,” he said in a statement.
Current House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy’s office also welcomed the move and said it would help all involved learn from errors the DOJ made in the past.
“For over six years, the House Oversight Committee has fought for additional documents related to Operation Fast and Furious. Today, the Committee finally reached a conditional settlement with the Department of Justice. The Committee seeks all relevant facts so we can learn from the mistakes made by the Justice Department,” Gowdy’s Communications Director Amanda Gonzalez said in a statement ITN.
“We have a responsibility to uncover why they worked so hard to hide this information from the Committee, the family of Brian Terry, and the American people,” she added.