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Inquiry assigns blame in Fast and Furious; 2 officials quit

An independent government investigation of the gun-tracking operation clears Atty. Gen. Eric Holder but suggests disciplining 14 other officials, two of whom promptly step down.

September 19, 2012|By Richard A. Serrano, Washington Bureau
  • After the report's release, Atty. Gen. Eric Holder fired back at what he said were “unsubstantiated conclusions” by Republican lawmakers who have been sharply critical of his activities relating to the Fast and Furious operation.
After the report's release, Atty. Gen. Eric Holder fired back at what… (Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images )

WASHINGTON — A gun-trafficking investigation on the Southwest border that went awry was a "significant danger to public safety," according to an independent government report that recommended that the Department of Justice consider disciplining 14 officials, from field agents in Arizona to top managers in Washington.

Less than an hour after those findings were announced, two of the officials — Kenneth E. Melson, the former acting head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and Deputy Assistant Atty. Gen. Jason M. Weinstein — announced they were stepping down. Others cited included Assistant Atty. Gen. Lanny Breuer, who runs the Justice Department criminal division, and Gary Grindler, who was the No.2 Justice official during Operation Fast and Furious.

The findings on Fast and Furious and a smaller program called Wide Receiver were announced Wednesday by the Justice Department's inspector general's office. Fast and Furious allowed more than 2,000 illegally purchased firearms to circulate across the U.S.-Mexico border.

The 18-month investigation also concluded that Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. had no knowledge of the problems surrounding Fast and Furious before the slaying of a U.S. Border Patrol agent brought them to light. He has long held that position despite intense criticism from Republican lawmakers who voted him in contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over some Justice documents regarding Fast and Furious.

The report marks the end of the last formal investigation of the long-running controversy. Though it probably will continue to pop up in court skirmishes over the Holder contempt citations as well as in campaign ads, it appears to put to bed the central Republican allegation that Holder and the Obama White House were involved.

The inspector general

determined that ATF agents and federal prosecutors had enough evidence to arrest and charge Jaime Avila, a Phoenix gun smuggler, months before U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed near Tucson in December 2010. Two of the weapons Avila illegally purchased were recovered at the scene of the killing.

Fast and Furious, said Inspector Gen. Michael E. Horowitz, was implemented by the ATF and the U.S. Attorney's office "without adequate regard for the risk it posed to public safety in the United States and Mexico." He said that although officials hoped to track the weapons to Mexican drug cartel leaders, it was nonetheless a "risky strategy without adequately taking into account the significant danger to public safety that it created."

Holder said the job performances of the dozen cited in the report and still employed at the ATF and the Justice Department would be reviewed with the "consideration of potential personnel actions." He declined to elaborate, citing privacy restrictions.

The attorney general also fired back at what he said were "unsubstantiated conclusions" by Republican lawmakers and other conservatives who have alleged that Holder and possibly some Obama White House officials not only were aware of the unorthodox tactics but condoned them.

"It is unfortunate that some were so quick to make baseless accusations before they possessed the facts about these operations, accusations that turned out to be without foundation and that have caused a great deal of unnecessary harm and confusion," Holder said.

But House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Vista) said the report "confirms findings by Congress' investigation of a near total disregard for public safety in Operation Fast and Furious." He said the investigation found there were "red flags showing reckless tactics and faults Attorney General Eric Holder's inner circle for their conduct."

Fast and Furious was born in the fall of 2009 in the ATF's Phoenix field office and the U.S. Attorney's office there. It was similar to Operation Wide Receiver, which began during George W. Bush's presidency and was smaller, involving only 400 firearms.

Already feeling criticized for making individual arrests rather than concentrating on large gun rings, agents and prosecutors came up with a broader idea of allowing many more weapons to be illegally purchased in the hope of tracking the firearms and arresting cartel leaders.

As it turned out, because Fast and Furious was largely run by a team of just three agents, the report said, the ATF could not keep up with the flood of weapons suddenly flying off the shelves of Phoenix-area gun stores once smugglers realized they were not being stopped or questioned.

As the inspector general put it, the ATF and federal prosecutors were overwhelmed and "failed to conduct the investigation with the urgency, oversight and attention to public safety that was required."

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