WASHINGTON — A Republican House committee chairman said Thursday that a watchdog report on a bungled gun-trafficking probe in Arizona is a huge step toward restoring public faith in the Justice Department.
Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee praised the findings of Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who faulted the agency for misguided strategies, errors in judgment and management failures in an operation that he said disregarded public safety and allowed hundreds of guns to reach Mexican drug gangs.
"There needs to be supervision; there needs to be oversight," and law enforcement operations like Fast and Furious need to be referred at the start to "the highest levels" of the department, Horowitz testified. His report faulted mid-level and senior officials for not briefing Attorney General Eric Holder much earlier.
The report proves "to both sides of the aisle that you could" do the job of looking into the facts of Operation Fast and Furious, "and I want to personally thank you," Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., told Horowitz.
The inspector general was walking a fine political line between vociferous Republican criticisms of the operation begun during the Obama administration and Democratic defenses of Holder.
"We found no evidence that the attorney general was aware" of Operation Fast and Furious or the much-disputed gun-walking tactic associated with it, Horowitz told Democratic delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia.
House Republicans see the IG's report as vindication because it criticizes one of their favorite targets: Holder's Justice Department.
Issa has maintained for months that affidavits in still-sealed wiretap applications in Operation Fast and Furious could have tipped off Justice Department lawyers that agents were using the risky tactic called gun-walking, which was at the heart of the controversy and led to hundreds of illicitly acquired guns being recovered from crime scenes in the U.S. and Mexico. Horowitz agreed with Issa.
"You would read these ... affidavits and see many red flags, in our view," said Horowitz. "We interviewed three of the five" lawyers who reviewed the 14 wiretap applications, and "all three indicated that they did not routinely read the affidavits when they came to them."
Democrats have suggested there is nothing in the applications that would have caused senior officials to see any red flags.
While critical, the IG's report knocks down some of the many accusations Republicans have made about the Obama administration during their year-and-a-half-long investigation of the operation by the Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
"We found no evidence" that staff at the department or at ATF informed the attorney general about Operation Fast and Furious before 2011, the report says. The operation begin in Phoenix in late 2009.
Former Acting Deputy Attorney General Gary Grindler received a briefing on Operation Fast and Furious in 2010.
"We found, however, that the briefing failed to alert Grindler to problems in the investigation," the report says.
"We found no evidence to suggest" that Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, head of the Justice Department's criminal division, was aware that the ATF and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona had adopted a strategy of not interdicting firearms, the report adds.
Still, the inspector general's report provided some validation for the Republican-led investigation.
The inspector general referred 14 people for possible department disciplinary action in Operation Fast and Furious and a separate, earlier probe known as Wide Receiver, undertaken during the George W. Bush administration — Grindler, Breuer and two other people from the Justice Department, four from ATF headquarters, four at ATF in Phoenix and two from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix.
A former head of the ATF, Kenneth Melson, and a deputy assistant attorney general in Justice's criminal division in Washington, Jason Weinstein, left the department upon the report's release Wednesday — the first by retirement, the second by resignation.
Operation Fast and Furious involved "gun-walking," an experimental tactic barred under longstanding department policy. ATF agents in Arizona allowed suspected straw purchasers, in these cases believed to be working for Mexican drug gangs, to leave Phoenix-area gun stores with weapons in order to track them and bring charges against gun-smuggling kingpins who long had eluded prosecution, but they lost track of most of the guns.
Two of the 2,000 weapons thought to have been acquired by illicit buyers in the Fast and Furious investigation were recovered at the scene of a shootout that claimed the life of U.S. border agent Brian Terry. About 1,400 of the total have yet to be recovered.
The experimental operations were a response to widespread criticisms of the agency's anti-smuggling efforts. Because of thin ATF staffing and weak penalties, the traditional strategy of arresting suspected straw buyers as soon as possible had failed to stop the flow of tens of thousands of guns to Mexico — more than 68,000 in the past five years.
Fast and Furious has produced charges against 20 gun traffickers, 14 of whom have pleaded guilty so far.
Horowitz indicated he will continue his investigation of matters related to Fast and Furious, Issa noted, including a look at possible retaliation against whistle-blowers and an effort to have the Justice Department unseal wiretap applications that were approved by senior officials.
A cover memo reviewed by Weinstein for one of the wiretap applications in Fast and Furious "clearly suggests" ATF agents had allowed a known illicit gun purchaser to continue his illegal activities for a gun-trafficking ring selling weapons to a Mexican drug cartel, the inspector general's report found.
In response to the criticism, Weinstein's lawyer said that before reviewing any Fast and Furious wiretaps, Weinstein had been assured by ATF Deputy Assistant Director William McMahon that guns were being aggressively interdicted.
During the House committee's investigation, President Barack Obama ordered Holder to withhold from the House committee, under executive privilege, some documents describing how the Justice Department responded to the panel. The Republican-controlled House voted to hold Holder in contempt, and Issa's committee has filed a civil lawsuit to make the administration turn over the documents. Horowitz said he was not denied access to any of the documents.