Republican lawmakers told Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday to fire some Justice Department subordinates over the flawed arms-trafficking investigation called Operation Fast and Furious.
Sensenbrenner and other Republicans hold the attorney general responsible for the operation, in which federal agents failed to track hundreds of illicitly obtained weapons that were later recovered in Mexico and the U.S., many of them at crime scenes.
"If you don't get to the bottom of this," there is only one alternative, and "it's called impeachment," said Sensenbrenner, without specifying whom he had in mind.
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the Justice Department had given inconsistent statements about what Smith called "a reckless and dangerous law enforcement program." Smith said many questions remain about who authorized the operation.
Holder, the sole witness at Thursday's hearing, says it was inexcusable for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to use a controversial tactic known as "gun-walking" in its effort to identify and prosecute major arms trafficking networks along the Southwest border.
Amid probes by Republicans in Congress and the Justice Department's inspector general, the department already has replaced U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke in Phoenix, acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson and the lead prosecutor in Operation Fast and Furious.
In that operation, two of the guns purchased at a Phoenix gun store were recovered from the scene of a shooting that killed border agent Brian Terry on the U.S. side of the border.
On Wednesday, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley, whose inquiry brought the tactic used in Operation Fast and Furious to light, called for the resignation of one of Holder's top aides, criminal division chief Lanny Breuer.
Breuer has said he made a mistake in not telling Holder and Deputy Attorney General James Cole that the controversial gun-walking tactic — letting guns "walk" across the border in an effort to identify higher-ups in gun networks — had been used in an earlier ATF probe called Operation Wide Receiver, which Breuer had known about since April 2010.
Grassley said that in addition to not informing his superiors, Breuer gave misleading answers when the senator asked whether Breuer had reviewed a Justice Department letter to Congress last February that said ATF makes every effort to intercept weapons that have been purchased illegally — an assertion that was incorrect in both Operation Wide Receiver and Operation Fast and Furious.
Breuer told Congress he cannot say for sure whether he saw a draft of the inaccurate letter and that he has no recollection of having done so. At the time the letter was drafted, Breuer told one of the letter's main drafters, "As usual, great work."
Breuer "needs to go immediately," Grassley said.
In response, Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said Breuer has acknowledged his mistake to Congress and to the attorney general and said Holder "continues to have confidence in assistant attorney general's Breuer ability to lead the criminal division."
Schmaler said Breuer's division has led important prosecutions against high-ranking gang members, secured the extradition of dangerous fugitives and spearheaded efforts with Mexico to enhance that country's law enforcement capacity.