- Attorney General Eric Holder is scheduled to testify Thursday before a House committee
- The topic: Mexican border gun-running, including "Operation Fast and Furious"
- House Republican Darrell Issa is demanding documents from the Justice Department
- Issa has threatened Holder with contempt if a deadline for the documents is not met
Setting up a white-hot face-off between Attorney General Eric Holder and House Republican Darrell Issa Thursday over Mexican-border gun-running, the Justice Department late Wednesday sent a sharp letter to Issa rejecting his demands from a day earlier for documents by a next-week deadline.
Issa is threatening the attorney general with contempt of Congress if DOJ fails to deliver.
The exchange of stinging letters the past two days caps weeks of maneuvering by both sides in advance of the anticipated Holder appearance Thursday before Issa's House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
In his letter to Holder on Tuesday, Issa blasted the Justice Department for dumping -- after close-of-business last Friday -- important long-sought documents that disclosed Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer had discussed with Mexican officials a plan to allow illegal guns "to walk" into Mexico, where Mexican officials would arrest the gun-runners.
Issa said an e-mail showed "Breuer suggested allowing straw purchasers cross in Mexico so (Mexican authorities) can arrest, prosecute and convict."
"These new documents show that Breuer made this statement on February 4, 2011, the same day Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich wrote to Congress denying that the Department allowed guns to walk," Issa said.
The Justice Department fired back Wednesday, claiming Issa's letter showed "significant misunderstanding both of the documents we recently produced and of the Department's position on the issues you raise."
The five-page letter signed by Deputy Attorney General James Cole strongly rejected the claim the documents show Breuer supported letting illegal guns make their way to Mexican cartels.
"Assistant Attorney General Breuer proposed to his Mexican counterparts a scenario in which those carrying illegal weapons across the border would be arrested at the border by Mexican officials and charged in Mexico. While these officials ultimately did not pursue that strategy, it is neither fair nor accurate to say that this was advocacy of 'gunwalking'. It was not. "
To stress the point, the Justice Department took the unusual step Wednesday of releasing excerpts from Holder's prepared testimony scheduled for Thursday, in which Holder vows that allowing guns to "walk" into Mexico is "wholly unacceptable."
"Today I reaffirm my commitment to ensuring that these flawed tactics are never used again," Holder declares in the prepared remarks.
Republicans have pressed to learn whether top Obama administration officials were aware of the controversial tactics, but to date Breuer is the highest-ranking official shown to be aware of the gun-running operation.
Democrats have released documents suggesting the U.S. attorney's office in Phoenix and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives field office in Phoenix were at the heart of the decision-making in developing sting operations including "Operation Fast and Furious."
Issa said in his letter to Holder that, "If the Department continues to obstruct the congressional inquiry by not providing documents and information, this Committee will have no alternative but to move forward with proceedings to hold you in contempt of Congress."
The Justice Department response Wednesday rejected Issa's February 9, 2012, deadline to produce all demanded documents. Cole called the deadline "impossible" to meet because of the broad scope of the request.
He did not directly refer to the threat of a contempt charge by Issa.
The political battle has been raging for more than a year, following the discovery that two of the "fast and furious" weapons that had gone missing in Mexico in the botched sting were discovered at the scene of the killing of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry in Arizona.
The hearing Thursday will not be the end of the battle over Operation Fast and Furious. The Justice Department's inspector general continues to work on a detailed account of the origins of the operation, and who was involved. The report is not expected to be complete for at least a couple more months.
Holder has promised when it is completed, he is prepared to make individuals accountable. But Holder says he has no plan to seek resignations or administer discipline until that report is complete.