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.”
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 Justice has agreed to seek court authorization to unredact as much of the wiretap information as possible.
Lack of oversight
According to the report, investigators found that no one responsible for the operations at either the ATF Phoenix field division or the U.S. attorney’s office raised serious questions or concerns about the government not taking earlier measures to disrupt a trafficking operation that continued to purchase firearms with impunity for many months.
The report says 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 Terry’s death but was not told about the connection between firearms found at the scene and Fast and Furious. It said he learned of the connection sometime in 2011, after he received a letter from Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, asking about Terry’s 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 said Mr. Grindler and former Deputy Chief of Staff Monty Wilkinson should have told Mr. Holder about the connection. It also singled out Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer, who heads the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, for possible disciplinary action for failing to alert Mr. Holder or his deputy when he learned in April 2010 that ATF had allowed guns to walk in Wide Receiver.
In addition, the report says Mr. Weinstein should have asked more questions about Fast and Furious, given his knowledge of Wide Receiver. Both Mr. Breuer and Mr. Weinstein were criticized for failing to draw a connection between the allegations in Mr. Grassley’s letters and their knowledge of gun-walking in Wide Receiver.
Weinstein’s dissenting view
In his resignation letter posted on his attorney’s website, Mr. Weinstein said he found it “personally painful” to read the report’s “completely false conclusion” that he knew about and failed to act on Fast and Furious guns being allowed to walk to Mexico. He said he had been assured by the ATF and prosecutors in Arizona that guns were not being transported south of the border.
According to the report, a poorly executed information-gathering and drafting process, as well as questionable judgments by department officials, contributed to Justice’s inclusion of inaccurate information in its Feb. 4 response letter to Mr. Grassley. It said that in preparing the 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 says they failed to exercise “appropriate oversight of the investigation, and to some extent were themselves receiving incorrect or incomplete information from their subordinates.”
Mr. Holder said officials within ATF and the U.S. attorney’s office in Arizona identified in the report as having been responsible for designing, implementing or supervising Fast and Furious have been “referred to the appropriate entities for review and consideration of potential personnel actions.” He declined to elaborate.
Political reaction split
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the committee’s ranking Democrat, said the report “debunks many of the extreme allegations made by Republicans,” instead confirming conclusions reached in a minority report issued nearly a year ago that said neither Mr. Holder nor senior Justice Department officials authorized or approved of gun-walking in Fast and Furious, that gun-walking started under the President Bush’s administration in 2006, and that ATF agents in Phoenix and the U.S. attorney’s office in Arizona shared responsibility for “misguided operations spanning five years.”
Mr. Grassley said the report confirmed that Fast and Furious was the “height of irresponsibility on the part of a number of people from the ATF Phoenix field office all the way up to the Justice Department headquarters.” He said he was “glad” Mr. Horowitz was joining with him and Mr. Issa in urging the Justice Department to unseal Fast and Furious wiretap applications “so the American people can read them and make up their own minds.”
ATF shut down Fast and Furious 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 just north of the U.S.-Mexico border, south of Tucson. The killing led to public testimony by ATF agents opposed to the operation, who said more than 2,000 weapons had been walked to drug smugglers in Mexico, about 1,400 of which are still unaccounted for.