Republicans on Thursday stepped up pressure on Attorney General Eric Holder to hand over documents related to the Justice Department's Fast and Furious "gun-walking" operation, peppering Holder with evidence leaked to the House committee by a mole inside Holder's department.
Lawmakers grilled Holder about whether his top staff knew about but failed to stop the covert operation, in which U.S. agents allowed guns to be smuggled to Mexican drug cartels so they could track them.
Even with a contempt of Congress threat looming and Republicans calling for his resignation, however, Holder stuck to his story that no top Justice officials were fully aware of the operation. And he insisted the Justice Department complied with all congressional requests for information about the operation, dismissing Republican accusations that he stonewalled them for nearly a year.
California Republican Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee who this week revealed he was receiving information about wiretap applications from a mole inside Holder's Justice Department, offered those applications as proof the Justice Department knew more than it was admitting about Fast and Furious.
The applications leaked to his committee showed that details about Fast and Furious were available to senior Justice officials as early as March 2010, nine months before one of the U.S. guns that ended up in Mexico was used to kill U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, Issa said.
Holder insists he did not know details of Fast and Furious until February 2011, two months after Terry's death.
"These wiretap applications, which we did not subpoena but which were given to us by a furious group of whistleblowers that are tired of your stonewalling, indicate that a number of key individuals in your administration, in fact, were responsible for information contained in here that clearly shows that the tactics of Fast and Furious were known," Issa said to Holder at the hearing.
Holder told Issa the senior officials who review wiretapping requests do not delve into the details of each case.
"They do not look at the affidavits to see ... all that is engaged, all that is involved in the operation," Holder said.
The exchange between Holder and Issa, one of his harshest critics in Congress, grew increasingly heated as the hearing wore on.
Issa told Holder that anyone who read the information about Fast and Furious available in the warrant applications "would be sick to their stomach." Issa said Holder was "not a good witness" because he kept skirting questions.
When committee Democrats jumped to Holder's defense, the hearing devolved into a crossfire of partisan barbs.
Issa has grown increasingly frustrated with Holder, threatening to bring contempt of Congress charges against him for failing to provide documents the committee had subpoenaed.
The Issa-Holder dispute grew so intense that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, intervened, hoping to avoid entangling Congress in a politically treacherous contempt vote.
"We will continue to work closely with the committee to try to make sure that the Department of Justice complies and answers the questions that have been outlined to them," Boehner said Thursday.
But Boehner warned Holder that contempt charges were still possible.
"All options are on the table with regard to what may need to be done to hold the Department of Justice accountable," Boehner said.