Congressional Republicans are trying to expand the scope of questions over the disastrous ATF gun-sting operation “Fast and Furious” to Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano, asking her why she never investigated even after suspected guns showed up at the scene of a dead U.S. Border Patrol agent.
Having repeatedly excoriated Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who Republicans said either knew or should have known about the gun-walking operation, party lawmakers this month have turned attention to Ms. Napolitano, saying she also should have asked questions once two AK-47s sold as part of the operation were found at the scene of the December shooting death of Agent Brian A. Terry.
“People on the ground knew that he was gunned down with “Fast and Furious” weapons. Three months went by, what did you do between December and February to find out the details about his loss of life?” Rep. Darrell E. Issa asked Ms. Napolitano on Wednesday at a House Judiciary Committee hearing. “Aren’t you outraged here today that you - if you were not informed - that you were not informed that weapons allowed to walk into drug dealers’ hands had killed one of your agents, and during those three months they kept it from you?”
Congressional investigators have said that immediately after Terry’s death an urgent request went out to trace the weapons, which showed they came from “Fast and Furious.”
Ms. Napolitano, who flew to Arizona in the days after the killing, said she did not know why she wasn’t briefed immediately on the gun-walking operation, and said she did not become aware of it until later. She said her concern at the time was the slain agent and the effort to find the bandits who shot him as he and other agents were trying to apprehend them near Rio Rico, Ariz., in December.
“That was my No. 1 concern: that those responsible for the shooting death of Agent Terry were brought to justice. And that’s what I was being kept apprised of,” she said.
“Fast and Furious,” run by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agents in Arizona, has become toxic in recent months. President Obama and Mr. Holder said they weren’t aware of it until after it was over. Mr. Obama has since said it showed “bad judgment.”
Under the operation, more than 2,000 firearms were sold to straw buyers in the U.S. between September 2009 and December 2010. Most of the weapons were then taken into Mexico, where many ended up in the hands of drug smugglers.
Mr. Holder has asked the Justice Department’s inspector general to investigate the operation, and congressional Republicans are conducting their own investigations, led by Mr. Issa, chairman of the oversight committee in the House and Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
But with Ms. Napolitano making appearances before the House and Senate judiciary committees over the past two weeks, attention has expanded to her department’s role and why she didn’t immediately demand more answers after Terry’s death.
The agent’s death wasn’t the first time Homeland Security was tipped to the ongoing operation.
Agents from Ms. Napolitano’s department were asked twice in 2009 to “stand down” by the ATF when they picked up guns involved in the operation.
Ms. Napolitano said that after the second incident, agents brought the matter to the attention of the assistant U.S. attorney, who said the ATF operation took precedence. She said she didn’t learn about those incidents until House investigators began looking into the affair.
Ms. Napolitano said she has never talked with Mr. Holder about the operation. One reason she said she hasn’t taken a more active role in demanding answers is that the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General is already conducting an investigation.
“What I know is that after the death of Agent Terry, the ‘Fast and Furious’ label became apparent and we became knowledgeable about it. Obviously, there were problems with the operation. Obviously, it did not succeed and the inspector general has that under investigation right now,” she said. “From a law enforcement perspective, yes, Fast and Furious is very troublesome.”
In her appearance before the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Ms. Napolitano also defended the administration’s record of deportations, saying it is removing the maximum number of people who are in the country illegally with the resources Congress has appropriated.
She said the major change has been to refocus deportation efforts on serious criminals and those with multiple immigration violations or who have entered the country only recently.
Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican and the committee chairman, said he has been stonewalled in his quest to get information on crimes committed by illegals that the department has declined to detain. If the information is not forthcoming, he said, he will have to issue a subpoena.
Ms. Napolitano also told the panel that felony convictions in states such as Alabama, which are adding immigration violations to their own state laws, would not necessarily bump illegal immigrants to the top of the deportation priority list.