"I think you're hiding behind something here," Rep. Dan Burton (R., Ind.) told Holder. "You ought to give us the documents. . . . It appears we're being stonewalled."
Burton, a former chairman of the panel, said he would urge Issa to seek a contempt-of-Congress citation if the Justice Department does not produce the congressionally subpoenaed documents.
Issa has threatened to seek a contempt ruling against Holder for failing to turn over the documents. Issa, who has set next Thursday as a deadline for complying with the subpoena, alleges a department cover-up.
"This has become political, that's fine," Holder said at the hearing, but there is no attempt "at a cover-up." The department, Holder said, "will continue to share huge amounts of information" about Fast and Furious.
The department says that Thursday is too soon to process "the broad scope of the committee's requests." Some 6,000 documents have been produced; the panel wants more than 70,000 more. Though neither side said so, negotiations are likely to be the next step.
Before the hearing, Issa introduced Holder to John Dodson, one of the whistle-blowers in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who told Congress a year ago about a tactic known as "gun-walking" in the Phoenix-based Fast and Furious investigation.
The tactic involves allowing suspected "straw" buyers of weapons to walk away from gun stores with their illicit purchases, rather than arresting them there. Instead, agents tried to track the low-level buyers and the guns to smuggling ringleaders and financiers, including Mexican drug-cartel leaders, who have long eluded prosecution for their role in the flow of guns into Mexico.
ATF's Phoenix division has tried this tactic, with minor variations, in at least four investigations beginning in 2006 during the George W. Bush administration. It began three such probes under Bush before launching Fast and Furious under President Obama. All of the probes encountered problems.
In Fast and Furious, agents lost track of nearly 1,400 of the more than 2,000 guns purchased by suspected straw buyers. Some 700 guns connected to suspects in the operation have been recovered in Mexico and the United States, some at crime scenes, including one near Nogales, Ariz., where border agent Brian Terry was slain in late 2010 in a firefight with suspected illegal immigrants.
A month after Terry's death, Congress began hearing of problems with the probe. Under pressure from lawmakers, Holder has shaken up the leadership of ATF, and the Justice Department is conducting a probe.