WASHINGTON — House Republicans eagerly joined the Justice Department's inspector general in taking the agency to task Thursday for its bungled gun-trafficking probe in Arizona that allowed hundreds of weapons to reach Mexican drug rings.
At a committee hearing, Democrats fought an uphill battle as the committee's Republicans, led by its chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa of California, wrapped themselves in the findings of Inspector General Michael Horowitz about Operation Fast and Furious.
Horowitz faulted the Justice Department for misguided strategies, errors in judgment and management failures in a gun-tracking operation that he said disregarded public safety.
"There needs to be supervision; there needs to be oversight," and law enforcement operations like Operation Fast and Furious need to be referred from the start to "the highest levels" of the department, Horowitz testified. His report faulted midlevel and senior officials for not briefing Attorney General Eric Holder much earlier.
Issa declared that Horowitz's 471-page report, released Wednesday, "is a huge step forward toward restoring the public faith in the Department of Justice."
The report proves "to both sides of the aisle that you could" do the job of looking into the facts of Operation Fast and Furious, "and I want to personally thank you," Issa told Horowitz.
The inspector general was walking a fine political line between vociferous Republican criticisms of the operation begun during the Obama administration and Democratic defenses of Holder.
"We found no evidence that the attorney general was aware" of Operation Fast and Furious or the much-disputed "gun-walking" tactic associated with it, Horowitz told Democratic Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia. Fast and Furious began in October 2009 and Horowitz said subordinates should have told Holder about it well before 2011.
President Barack Obama, in an appearance Thursday on Univision, a Spanish-language television network, also said the gun-trafficking probe in Arizona was "completely wrongheaded" but said he retains confidence in Holder.
"He has shown himself to be accountable" by taking action against those who directed the operation, Obama said.
Obama said ultimately he himself was responsible, but he noted that Horowitz found that "people (in the Justice Department) should have known in some cases even if they didn't actually know" about the operation.
Another point on which Horowitz vindicated Democrats was that risky gun-walking experiments originated in the administration of Republican President George W. Bush when the department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Tucson, Ariz., launched Operation Wide Receiver. That operation in 2006-2007 resulted in the ATF losing track of 400 guns.
Gun-walking was an experimental investigative tactic, barred under longstanding department policy. ATF agents in Arizona allowed suspected straw purchasers, believed to be working for Mexican drug gangs, to leave gun stores with weapons in order to track them and try to 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.
But outside scrutiny of the Arizona experiments soared after two of the 2,000 weapons thought to have been acquired at Phoenix-area gun stores by illicit buyers during 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.
Fast and Furious has produced charges against 20 gun traffickers, 14 of whom have pleaded guilty so far.
At Thursday's hearing, Republican committee members and the inspector general agreed on a number of points. One of them: Issa has maintained for months that affidavits in still-sealed wiretap applications in Fast and Furious could have tipped off Justice Department lawyers that agents were using the gun-walking tactic. Horowitz agreed with Issa.
"You would read these ... affidavits and see many red flags, in our view," Horowitz said. "We interviewed three of the five" lawyers who reviewed the 14 wiretap applications, and "all three indicated that they did not routinely read the affidavits when they came to them."
Democrats have suggested there is nothing in the applications that would have caused senior officials to see any red flags.
In his report, the inspector general recommended that the department review the conduct and performance of 14 people and determine whether disciplinary action is appropriate. The 14 included former acting Deputy Attorney General Gary Grindler and Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, an Obama administration appointee who heads Justice's criminal division.
"I think this is a wonderful report," Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, told the hearing. "I appreciate the thoroughness. I think you're a professional and did a great job, but I think you were a little soft on Lanny Breuer."
A Justice Department official said the department did not believe further discipline was warranted against Breuer, nor any against Grindler. The official was not authorized to speak on the record about personnel matters and thus spoke on condition of anonymity. Discipline was still being weighed for others cited by Horowitz.
Breuer was admonished by the attorney general last year and apologized for not informing his superiors once he learned that Operation Wide Receiver relied on the gun-walking tactic that federal agents later used in Operation Fast and Furious.
The IG found no evidence indicating that Breuer was aware in 2009 or 2010 that agents in Operation Fast and Furious were failing to interdict firearms.
The inspector general said Grindler should have inquired of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix and ATF about the link between Fast and Furious and the two guns found at the agent Terry's murder scene in December 2010 and should have informed Holder about that. Grindler said he did not do so because he was relying on the FBI to investigate the homicide.
On Thursday, the parents of Terry, the slain U.S. border agent, said they weren't happy with the report. Carolyn Terry said the couple wanted those responsible put in jail, not slapped on the wrist.
Dennis Burke, the U.S. attorney in Phoenix during Fast and Furious, resigned in August 2011. Holder replaced the head of ATF, and senior ATF officials and prosecutors were moved to other duties. Ken Melson, the former head of ATF, and Jason Weinstein, a career attorney and deputy assistant attorney general under Breuer, left government upon release of the report Wednesday – Melson by retirement, Weinstein by resignation.
Inspector general report: http://www.justice.gov/oig/reports/2012/s1209.pdf