Justice Dept faulted in gun-trafficking operation

Associated Press Modified: September 19, 2012 at 6:01 pm •  Published: September 19, 2012
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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department's internal watchdog on Wednesday faulted the agency for misguided strategies, errors in judgment and management failures during a bungled gun-trafficking probe in Arizona that disregarded public safety and resulted in hundreds of weapons turning up at crime scenes in the U.S. and Mexico.

A former head of the department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and a deputy assistant attorney general in Justice's criminal division in Washington left the department upon the report's release — the first by retirement, the second by resignation.

In the 471-page report, Inspector General Michael Horowitz referred more than a dozen people for possible department disciplinary action for their roles in Operation Fast and Furious and a separate, earlier probe known as Wide Receiver, undertaken during the George W. Bush administration. A former acting deputy attorney general and the head of the criminal division were criticized for actions and omissions related to operations subsequent to and preceding Fast and Furious.

The report did not criticize Attorney General Eric Holder, but said lower-level officials should have briefed him about the investigation much earlier.

The report found no evidence that Holder was informed about the Fast and Furious operation before Jan. 31, 2011, or that the attorney general was told about the much-disputed gun-walking tactic employed by the ATF.

Gun-walking was an experimental tactic, barred under long-standing department policy. ATF agents in Arizona allowed suspected "straw purchasers," in these cases believed to be working for Mexican drug gangs, to leave Phoenix-area gun stores with weapons in order to track them and bring charges against gun-smuggling kingpins who long had eluded prosecution, but they lost track of most of the guns.

The experimental operations were a response to widespread criticisms of the agency's anti-smuggling efforts. Because of thin ATF staffing and weak penalties, the traditional strategy of arresting suspected straw buyers as soon as possible had failed to stop the flow of tens of thousands of guns to Mexico — more than 68,000 in the past five years.

The inspector general found fault with the work of the senior ATF leadership, the ATF staff and U.S. attorney's office in Phoenix and senior officials of Justice's criminal division in Washington. He also said that poor internal information-gathering and drafting at Justice and ATF caused the department to initially misinform Congress about Fast and Furious, beginning with a Feb. 4, 2011, letter.

"The inspector general's report confirms findings by Congress' investigation of a near total disregard for public safety in Operation Fast and Furious," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has been investigating Operation Fast and Furious since early 2011. Horowitz is to testify before Issa's panel Thursday.

During the investigation President Barack Obama ordered Holder to withhold from the committee, under executive privilege, some documents describing how the department responded to the panel. The Republican-controlled House voted to hold Holder in contempt and has authorized a civil lawsuit to make the administration turn over the documents. Horowitz said he was not denied access to any of the documents.

Two of the 2,000 weapons thought to have been acquired by illicit buyers in the Fast and Furious investigation were recovered at the scene of a shootout that claimed the life of U.S. border agent Brian Terry. About 1,400 of the total have yet to be recovered.

Holder noted in a statement that the report confirmed his assertions that the flawed strategies were driven by field agents without his knowledge or approval and that department did not set out to misinform Congress.

He said the report's disciplinary recommendations are being pursued and "we now have two men in custody and we will continue to aggressively pursue the remaining fugitives to ensure justice for Agent Terry, his family and his fellow law enforcement agents."

Fast and Furious has produced charges against 20 gun traffickers, 14 of whom have pleaded guilty so far.

One of those criticized in the report, former ATF acting director Kenneth Melson, who headed that agency during the Fast and Furious investigation, retired upon release of the report.

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