Nearly two years after weapons purchased during the botched "Fast and Furious" gunrunning investigation were found at the scene of the killing of a U.S. Border Patrol agent, a Justice Department report on Wednesday outlined a "pattern of serious failures" in the handling of the operation by both the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and U.S. attorney's office in Arizona.
It also questions the response by the Justice Department to Congressional inquiries about the flawed operation.
The long-anticipated 471-page report by the department's Office of Inspector General also found no evidence showing that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. "was informed about Operation Fast and Furious, or learned about the tactics employed by ATF in the investigation" before the controversial investigation's public unraveling in January 2011, after Congress had begun to press him for information on the operation.
But investigators for Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz did conclude that Acting Deputy Attorney General Gary Grindler, Mr. Holder's chief of staff, received a briefing about Fast and Furious in March 2010, but that the briefing "failed to alert Grindler to problems in the investigation."
According to the report, investigators found a series of "misguided strategies, tactics, errors in judgment, and management failures" that permeated ATF headquarters in Washington and the Phoenix field division, as well as the U.S. attorney's office in Arizona and at the Justice Department headquarters in Washington. The report described deficiencies in two operations conducted in ATF's Phoenix field division between 2006 and 2010 — Operation Wide Receiver and Operation Fast and Furious. It recommended that 14 employees overall be reviewed for possible sanctions, but does not make recommendations for criminal charges.
The report also identified persons ranging from line agents and prosecutors in Phoenix and Tucson to senior ATF officials in Washington who "bore a share of responsibility for ATF's knowing failure in both these operations to interdict firearms illegally destined for Mexico, and for pursuing this risky strategy without adequately taking into account the significant danger to public safety that it created." The report also found failures by Justice Department officials, including failing to respond accurately to a Congressional inquiry about the operations.
"We operated with complete and total independence in our search for the truth, and the decision about what to cover in this report and the conclusions that we reached were made solely by me and my office," Mr. Horowitz said. "I am pleased that we are able to put forward a full and complete recitation of the facts that we found, and the conclusions that we reached, with minimal redactions by the department to our report."
He also said the Obama administration made no redactions for executive privilege, even though the report evaluates in detail and reaches conclusions about the department's actions in responding to Congress, adding that the department has agreed to seek court authorization to unredact as much of the wiretap information as possible.
According to the report, both Wide Receiver and Fast and Furious were "seriously flawed and supervised irresponsibly" by ATF's Phoenix field division and the U.S. attorney's Office, "most significantly in their failure to adequately consider the risk to the public safety in the United States and Mexico." It noted that both investigations sought to identify the higher reaches of firearms trafficking networks by deferring any overt law enforcement action against the individual straw purchasers — such as making arrests or seizing firearms — even when there was sufficient evidence to do so.
"The risk to public safety was immediately evident in both investigations," the report said. "Almost from the outset of each case, ATF agents learned that the purchases were financed by violent Mexican drug trafficking organizations and that the firearms were destined for Mexico."
But, the report said, investigators found that no one responsible for the case at either the ATF Phoenix field division or the U.S. attorney's office raised a serious question or concern about the government not taking earlier measures to disrupt a trafficking operation that continued to purchase firearms with impunity for many months. It said investigators did not find persuasive evidence that any supervisor in Phoenix, at either the U.S. attorney's office or ATF, raised serious questions or concerns about the risk to public safety posed by the continuing firearms purchases or by the delay in arresting persons who were engaging in the trafficking.
The report said that failure reflected a "significant lack of oversight and urgency" by both ATF and the U.S. attorney's office, and a "disregard by both" for the safety of persons in the United States and Mexico.
According to the report, Mr. Holder was notified immediately of the Terry shooting, but was not told about the connection between the firearms found at the scene and Fast and Furious. It said he learned of the connection sometime in 2011, after he received a letter for Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, asking about the Terry death,
"Had the department's senior leadership taken immediate action after learning that weapons found at the scene of a federal law enforcement agent's murder were linked to a straw purchaser in an ATF firearms trafficking investigation, the department likely would have gathered information about Operation Fast and Furious well before it received the inquiry from Sen. Grassley about the very same issue in late January 2011. The Department, however, did not do so," the report said.
The report also found that a "poorly executed information gathering and drafting process, as well as questionable judgments by department officials, contributed to the department's inclusion of inaccurate information in its Feb. 4 response letter to Mr. Grassley. It said that in preparing that letter, department officials relied on information provided by senior officials that was not accurate, primarily from U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke, ATF Acting Director Kenneth Melson, and his deputy, William Hoover. It said they "failed to exercise appropriate oversight of the investigation, and to some extent were themselves receiving incorrect or incomplete information from their subordinates about it."
Fast and Furious was shut down by the ATF after two AK-47 semi-automatic assault rifles purchased by "straw buyers" from a gun shop in Glendale, Ariz., were found near Terry's body. The agent had been killed during a shootout with Mexican drug smugglers at a remote location just north of the U.S.-Mexico border, south of Tucson. The killing led to public testimony by ATF whistleblowers — agents who had opposed the operation — who said more than 2,000 weapons had been "walked" to drug cartel members in Mexico, about 1,400 of which are still unaccounted for.
In July, House and Senate investigators singled out five ATF officials for blame in Fast and Furious, all of whom have since been reassigned for miscues in the failed operation. A 211-page report by staff investigators for Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Mr. Grassley, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, identified the five as William Newell, former special agent in charge of ATF´s Phoenix field division; William McMahon, former deputy assistant director for field operations; Mark Chait, former assistant director for field operations; Mr. Hoover; and Mr. Melson.
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