The Justice Department's Office of Inspector General on Wednesday blamed the failure of Operation Fast and Furious on a series of “misguided strategies,” but found no evidence that Attorney General Eric. H. Holder Jr. knew of the misguided gunrunning investigation before its public unraveling in January 2011.
The long-anticipated 471-page report cites “errors in judgment and management failures” on the part of officials at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives headquarters in Washington and in the Phoenix field office, and says “questionable judgments” by Justice Department officials in Washington marred the department’s response to Capitol Hill inquiries.
The investigation came to light after two AK-47 semi-automatic assault rifles purchased as a part of Fast and Furious were found at the scene of the killing nearly two years ago of a U.S. Border Patrol agent. The report recommended that 14 department employees be reviewed for possible sanctions or other disciplinary actions.
The report also says 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 Mr. Grindler to problems in the investigation.” The report says Mr. Grindler learned three days after the Dec. 14, 2010, death of Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry of the link between weapons found at the scene of the killing and Fast and Furious, but did not tell Mr. Holder. It said he should have “informed the attorney general as well as made an appropriate inquiry of ATF or the U.S. attorney's office about the connection.”
Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jason Weinstein, who reviewed Fast and Furious wiretap applications, resigned Wednesday in the wake of the report, which says he should have asked more questions about Fast and Furious, given his knowledge of a similar 2006 program known as Operation Wide Receiver. Former Acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson, named in the report as failing to maintain “appropriate oversight” of Fast and Furious, announced his retirement Wednesday, effective immediately.
According to the report, both Fast and Furious and Wide Receiver were “seriously flawed and supervised irresponsibly” by ATF’s Phoenix field division and the U.S. attorney's office in Arizona, “most significantly in their failure to adequately consider the risk to the public safety in the United States and Mexico.” It said both investigations sought to identify the higher reaches of firearms-trafficking networks by deferring any overt law enforcement action against the individual straw buyers — 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 says. “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.”
Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which investigated Fast and Furious, said Wednesday the report confirmed findings by Congress of a “near total disregard for public safety in Operation Fast and Furious, contrary to the denials of the attorney general and his political defenders.” Mr. Issa said the report notes that information in wiretap applications approved by senior Justice Department officials in Washington “did contain red flags showing reckless tactics” and they fault Mr. Holder’s inner circle for their conduct.
Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz is scheduled to testify to the committee on Thursday on the findings of his investigation.
Mr. Holder said Wednesday the report’s key conclusions are “consistent” with what he and other Justice Department officials have said for many months: The inappropriate strategy and tactics employed were field-driven and date back to 2006; the leadership of the department did not know about or authorize the use of the flawed strategy and tactics; and the department’s leadership did not attempt to cover up information or mislead Congress about it.
“I want to assure the American people that I, and my colleagues at the department, will continue to focus on our mission of protecting their rights and their security and doing so in a manner that is consistent with the high standards of the Department of Justice,” he said.
The report identifies persons ranging from field agents and prosecutors in Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz., to senior ATF officials in Washington who “bore a share of responsibility” for ATF’s failures in both Fast and Furious and Wide Receiver to interdict firearms illegally bound for Mexico, and for pursuing “this risky strategy without adequately taking into account the significant danger to public safety that it created.”
“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 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.”