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Justice Department Watchdog Blasts 'Fast And Furious' Operation

Attorney General Eric Holder testifies during a House Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., in June.
Mark Wilson
Getty Images
Attorney General Eric Holder testifies during a House Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., in June.

NPR's Carrie Johnson tells us more about today's Justice Department report on the "Fast and Furious" gun-trafficking operation:

Justice Department watchdogs say a flawed gun-trafficking operation in which federal agents lost track of nearly 2,000 AK-47s and other weapons resulted from a series of "misguided strategies, tactics, errors in judgment and management failures."

The long-awaited report by Inspector General Michael Horowitz recommended that the conduct of 14 officials in Washington and Arizona be reviewed for possible disciplinary action. Horowitz placed most of the blame with leadership at the Phoenix field office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona, which hatched the operation known as "Fast and Furious."

The law enforcement officials wanted to bring down gun traffickers tied to the violent Sinaloa drug cartel in Mexico. Instead, the weapons wound up at crime scenes, including the December 2010 shooting death of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.

Holder Aides Criticized

Investigators came up with no evidence that Attorney General Eric Holder knew about the questionable tactics or the flow of guns into Mexico. But the IG report, which tops 400 pages, saves some criticism for Holder's chief of staff and a deputy for failing to alert the attorney general that two guns traced to Fast and Furious were found near Terry's body.

Holder said Wednesday he's working with the Mexican government to find and extradite fugitives involved in Terry's death.

Whistle-blowers within the ATF flagged their concerns to Congress within weeks of Terry's murder. Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley says he's still poring over the report, but he's bothered the White House didn't share any internal communications it may have had about the effort to go after drug cartels in Fast and Furious.

"The inspector general's report confirms findings by Congress' investigation of a near-total disregard for public safety," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "It's time for President Obama to step in and provide accountability for officials at both the Department of Justice and ATF who failed to do their jobs."


The fallout from the scandal has already shaken the Justice Department.

Kenneth Melson, ATF acting director during the Fast and Furious operation, resigned despite what he called "speculative assumptions, conclusions and characterizations" in the report. Melson, who spent nearly 30 years in government service, said he was "ultimately responsible" for failings at ATF during his tenure there.

Also, Jason Weinstein resigned his post as a deputy in the Justice Department's criminal division after coming in for scathing criticism from investigators.

Weinstein, a longtime violent-crime prosecutor in New York and Maryland, said the IG was using the benefit of "perfect hindsight" and suggested he was being scapegoated in a toxic scandal that has become politicized.

"I have been singled out because of the desire to blame someone of rank within Main Justice," he said, "even though my only knowledge about Fast and Furious consisted of repeated false assurances from those who supervised the investigation that guns were being aggressively interdicted in the case."

Weinstein's boss, Lanny Breuer, came in for criticism for failing to alert higher-ups at Justice Department headquarters once he found out ATF and Arizona prosecutors had used similar tactics during the Bush administration. Breuer apologized last year. A Justice Department official says Breuer was "admonished" last year and won't face further discipline.

Guns 'May Wash Ashore'

At ATF headquarters, new Acting Director B. Todd Jones has tried to overhaul the ways agents deal with confidential informants and sensitive gun-trafficking cases. He declined to say how many guns traced to Fast and Furious are still in circulation, though Republican lawmakers put the number at more than 1,200.

"There are a number of weapons that are in the illegal stream of commerce now that may wash ashore at some juncture," Jones said.

Horowitz is scheduled to testify before Issa's House panel Thursday. Issa and other Republicans signaled they would have more harsh words about Holder's management style at the hearing.

Ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., says he hopes the report "provides the Terry family with much needed answers and that Congress can now turn the page and focus on reforms to help insure that this never happens again."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.