By Robert Beckhusen | Wired.com | Sep. 19, 2012
Attorney General Eric Holder. Photo: DoJ
A disastrous plan by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to allow guns to “walk” into Mexico wasn’t the fault of a few misguided officials, a new investigation from the Justice Department’s internal watchdog finds. The gun-walking plan, known as Operation Fast and Furious, compromised the integrity of more than a dozen senior officials and three agencies. Attorney General Eric Holder has been cleared of allegations he knew about Fast and Furious. Many of his subordinates were not so fortunate.
“Our investigation made clear that the failures within ATF, which included a long term strategy in Operation Fast and Furious that was fully supported by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, were systemic and not due to the acts of only a few individuals,” (.pdf) wrote Inspector General Michael Horowitz. Those conclusions partially vindicate what Holder’s defenders have long maintained, that the botched gun-walking operation was isolated to the ATF Phoenix Field Division and then-U.S. attorney for Arizona Dennis Burke. The report also doesn’t go as far as Holder’s critics would have liked.
Much of the political acrimony over Fast and Furious has revolved around what Holder knew and when about Fast and Furious while serving as the top dog at the Justice Department. But according to the report, Holder only found out about Fast and Furious after it was leaked to the public, the time he’s maintained. Meanwhile, the attorney general received reports about Fast and Furious, which the ATF was attempting to use in building cases against the cartels, but was never told about its problems or had the plot — buried within the stacks of reports received by the agency each week — brought to his attention.
The date Holder has said he finally became aware, Jan. 31, 2011, was less than a week after the botched operation became public information, and after the ATF and U.S. Attorney’s Office in Phoenix moved to squash the plan. “We found no evidence that Attorney General Holder was informed about Operation Fast and Furious, or learned about the tactics employed by the ATF” before that date, Horowitz writes.
Critics had alleged a cover-up, and Holder was found in contempt of Congress in June for not turning over documents requested by congressional investigators. The House Oversight Committee filed a civil lawsuit against Holder over the contempt charge in August. Though, a lawsuit could take years to work out, and a criminal case against Holder doesn’t have much of a chance, considering it’s asking Holder to essentially prosecute himself.
A sticking point, though, was whether Holder was informed of the link between the December 2010 shooting of Border Patrol tactical agent Brian Terry in Arizona, and at least one semi-automatic AK-47 rifle linked to the operation discovered at the scene and used by border bandits to kill Terry. According to the report, Holder was not told about the discovery of the operation-linked weapon until after the case went public, though he was told about the shooting within hours after it happened.
On the other hand, there were other senior officials who did know, and didn’t tell Holder. The report cited former ATF acting director Kenneth Melson, and William Newell, the head agent in charge the ATF branch in Phoenix. Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jason Weinstein, who resigned Tuesday night, didn’t intervene to stop the operation, and never told Holder about it.
“In the course of our review, we identified individuals ranging from line agents and prosecutors in Phoenix and Tucson to senior ATF officials in Washington, D.C., who bore a share of responsibility for A.T.F.’s knowing failure in both these operations to interdict firearms illegally destined for Mexico, and for doing so without adequately taking into account the danger to public safety that flowed from this risky strategy,” the report said.
The report issued several recommendations calling on the Justice Department to review that the ATF’s “policies on law enforcement operations to ensure that they are in compliance with Department of Justice guidelines and policies.” The report also calls on the agencies to figure out how to re-evaluate the way they carry out investigations on gun trafficking. Because, you know, thousands of guns wound up in the hands of the cartels and nearly sacked the Attorney General.