- - Monday, October 31, 2011

In the latest development in the controversy over an Obama administration gun-smuggling investigation, the head of the Justice Department's Criminal Division said Monday he regrets not alerting the department’s leadership to problems in a similar gun-smuggling probe under the Bush administration.

Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said he knew in April 2010 that investigators in the 2006 probe had allowed hundreds of guns to be transferred to traffickers suspected of arming Mexico’s drug cartels - the same tactic that Republicans are criticizing the Obama’s administration for using in Operation Fast and Furious.

“Knowing what I know now … I wish that I had gone upstairs” and told Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Deputy Attorney General James Cole, the department’s two top officials, Mr. Breuer said in an interview with the Associated Press. “As [Operation] Wide Receiver makes its way to my office, it looks like ATF permitted guns to go to Mexico even though they had the legal authority and the ability” to intercept them.

When allegations about Fast and Furious surfaced early this year, the Justice Department told Congress that the department makes “every effort” to seize weapons that have been purchased illegally.

But Sen. Chuck Grassley, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, on Monday night suggested in a statement that contrary to previous denials by the Justice Department, the criminal division has “a great deal of culpability in sweeping the previous Wide Receiver strategy under the rug and then allowing the subsequent Operation Fast and Furious to continue without asking key questions.”

He said Obama Justice Department officials raised “very appropriate questions” concerning Operation Wide Receiver at the same time that “many of these same officials were receiving briefings on Operation Fast and Furious.

“It begs the question why they didn’t ask the same important questions about an ongoing case being run out of the same field division,” he said.

Documents collected by Mr. Grassley and Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, show that Mr. Holder was briefed at least five times on Fast and Furious, beginning at least 10 months prior to the time he has said he first learned of the program. Those briefing documents include a July 2010 memo by Mr. Breuer that describes both operations Fast and Furious and Wide Receiver.

Mr. Breuer’s admission to AP came as the Justice Department sent documents to Capitol Hill that detail his knowledge of the earlier investigation.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, led by Mr. Issa, and the Justice Department’s inspector general are looking into the gun-walking tactics used in Fast and Furious.

Mr. Breuer told AP that until early 2011, “ATF leadership … adamantly and explicitly says that guns were not walking,” and so “I simply literally do not draw the connection” early this year between the two operations.

Washington Times staff writer Jerry Seper contributed to this article, which is based on wire reports.