The ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday called for the resignation of Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, who heads the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, saying accountability in the botched Fast and Furious investigation was overdue.
“It is past time for accountability at the senior levels of the Justice Department,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, said during an impassioned speech on the Senate floor. “That accountability needs to start with the head of the Criminal Division, Lanny Breuer. I believe it is time for him to go.”
Mr. Grassley began the now-expanding congressional probe into Fast and Furious after the Dec. 14, 2010, shooting death of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry. Two AK-47 assault rifles purchased during Fast and Furious were found at the scene. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) let 2,000 weapons be bought by “straw buyers” in Arizona during its undercover operation, many of which were walked into Mexico.
“The Justice Department denied in a letter to me on Feb. 4, 2011, that ATF had ever walked guns. Mr. Breuer had been consulted in the drafting of that erroneous letter,” Mr. Grassley said. “On May 2, 2011, rather than acknowledging the increasingly obvious facts and apologizing for its February letter, the Justice Department reiterated its denial.
“When the Justice Department revealed on Oct. 31 of this year that Breuer had known as far back as April 2010 about gunwalking at ATF, I was astounded,” he said. “This was a shocking revelation.”
Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said Wednesday that Mr. Breuer has acknowledged his mistake in not alerting the department’s leadership to a connection between the allegations made about Fast and Furious “and the unacceptable tactics used years earlier in Operation Wide Receiver.”
“He has acknowledged that mistake to Congress and to the attorney general, who continues to have confidence in Assistant Attorney General’s Breuer ability to lead the Criminal Division. As Mr. Breuer has told Congress, he did not participate in the drafting of the Feb. 4 letter and does not recall reviewing it before it was sent,” she said.
Ms. Schmaler said the Criminal Division, under Mr. Breuer’s leadership, has made “critical progress in our fight against violent crime along the Southwest Border,” including important prosecutions against high-ranking gang members and the extradition of dangerous fugitives. She said the division also had “spearheaded efforts with our Mexican partners to enhance their own law enforcement capacity.”
But Mr. Grassley said that while the Justice Department publicly denied to Congress that ATF would ever walk guns, Mr. Breuer knew otherwise and said nothing. He said Mr. Breuer knew the same ATF field division was responsible for walking guns in 2006 as part of Wide Receiver.
“But the real shock was how Mr. Breuer had responded within his own department when that earlier gunwalking was first brought to his attention in April 2010,” Mr. Grassley said. “He didn’t tell the attorney general. He didn’t tell the attorney general’s chief of staff. He didn’t tell the deputy attorney general. He didn’t tell the inspector general.
“Instead, he simply told his deputy to meet with ATF leadership and inform them of the gunwalking ‘so they know the bad stuff that could come out,’[ThSp]” Mr. Grassley said, adding that Mr. Breuer’s deputy later outlined a strategy to “announce the case without highlighting the negative part of the story and risking embarrassing ATF.”
Wide Receiver began in 2006 under the Bush administration, during which about 450 weapons were sold to straw buyers. The weapons supposedly were being monitored by the ATF, but eventually found their way to Mexico. In Fast and Furious, 2,000 weapons were sold and walked into Mexico. About 1,400 of them remain unaccounted for.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has been called to testify Thursday before the House Judiciary Committee, whose chairman, Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, has called for the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate Fast and Furious.
Mr. Grassley said the truth about guns being walked into Mexico was hidden for 18 months and became public only because of the congressional investigation into gunwalking in Fast and Furious. He also said public outrage over Fast and Furious “comes from average Americans who cannot understand why their own government would intentionally allow criminals to illegally buy weapons for trafficking to Mexico.”
He noted that next week will be the first anniversary of the Terry death, who was “murdered by bandits armed with guns as a direct result of this policy of letting guns walk.” He said the Terry family and all Americans who sympathize with their loss are “rightfully outraged and astonished that our own government would do such a thing.”
“There seems to be a vast gulf between what outrages the American people and what outrages Lanny Breuer,” he said. “Mr. Breuer showed a complete lack of judgment by failing to object to the gunwalking that he knew about in April 2010.”
Mr. Grassley said if Mr. Breuer had reacted to the gunwalking in Wide Receiver the way most Americans reacted to the gunwalking in Fast and Furious, he would have taken steps to stop it and hold accountable those involved. He said that had that happened, Fast and Furious might have been stopped in its tracks.
“When Mr. Breuer came before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on crime and terrorism the day after those revelations, I gave him a chance to explain himself. I listened to what he had to say. He told us that he ‘thought that dealing with the leadership of ATF was sufficient and reasonable,’” Mr. Grassley said. “Clearly, it was not sufficient.”
Mr. Grassley said Mr. Breuer has said he regretted not alerting others within the Justice Department leadership of the tactics used in Operation Wide Receiver when they first came to his attention.
“But what about bringing it to the attention of Congress? He didn’t even step forward to express his regret until emails that detailed his knowledge were about to be produced under congressional subpoena,” Mr. Grassley said. “It is astounding that it took the public controversy over Fast and Furious to help the chief of the Criminal Division realize that walking guns is unacceptable.”
Mr. Grassley said Mr. Breuer had nine months after the Feb. 4 letter to correct the record and 18 months after learning of gunwalking in Wide Receiver to put a stop to it, but he failed to do so.
“Mr. Breuer’s failure to be candid and forthcoming before this body irreparably harms his credibility. His complete lack of judgment and failure to deal with gunwalking when he first learned of it in April 2010 was bad enough, but this is the final straw,” Mr. Grassley said. “Mr. Breuer has lost my confidence in his ability to effectively serve the Justice Department.
“If you can’t be straight with Congress, you don’t need to be running the Criminal Division,” he said. “It’s time to stop spinning and start taking responsibility. If Mr. Breuer wants to do the honorable thing, he should resign of his own accord.”