'Gunwalker' subpoena dispute escalates

ATF logo over US Capitol Dome

WASHINGTON - Today, the House Oversight Committee held a hearing to explore whether Congress has the right to hold the Justice Department in contempt in the so-called ATF "gunwalker" investigation.

Experts indicated the Justice Department should probably be more forthcoming when responding to the document requests from Congress. They said Congress has the right to resort to contempt proceedings, but that the document tug-of-war between the co-equal branches of government is not unusual.

In this case, it's getting heated. Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-CA, has said more subpoenas are forthcoming. He accuses the Justice Department of withholding documents after a subpoena he issued to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF); which is under the Justice Department's jurisdiction.

Issa subpoenas ATF over gunwalking allegations

Morton Rosenberg, a specialist in American public law, formerly with the Congressional Research Service, told Congress, "the Department of Justice has the power to string out your investigation, refuse to obey it, and then when it's time for contempt...say all you can do is bring a civil action which will extend and delay your constitutional ability to enforce your" legislative powers.

Democrats on the Oversight Committee defended the Justice Department saying it has provided some documents to Congress. "The Department in fact had produced to the committee or made available to the committee staff for review approximately 1,336 pages of subpoenaed documents to date," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-MD. Cummings added that turning over more could jeopardize the ongoing investigation into potential crimes at issue in the gunwalker case. Chairman Issa argued that all of the documents turned over were already publicly available on the Internet, or too highly redacted to be of use in the investigation.

ATF Agent: I was ordered to let guns go into Mexico

In the gunwalker case, ATF agents say they were ordered to allow thousands of weapons to be sold to suspected suppliers for Mexico's drug cartels. The idea of letting so many guns "walk" onto the street was apparently to see where they would turn up and go after the major cartel kingpins instead of the smalltime weapons traffickers.

Today's hearing was a precursor to Wednesday's gunwalker hearing, which will feature the family of murdered border patrol agent Brian Terry and a Justice Department official. Members of Congress will also hear from three ATF agents, including whistleblower John Dodson who first spoke to CBS News in March.

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    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.