By Jordy Yager - 09/14/11 12:17 AM EDT
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told senators Tuesday that she had no knowledge of a botched federal gun-tracking program while it was in operation.
In testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Napolitano said she was first made aware of the Fast and Furious program after U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in the line of duty in Arizona in December 2010.
Weapons lost track of by Fast and Furious agents were found at the scene of Terry’s death.
“That is accurate,” Napolitano replied.
The Fast and Furious operation was launched by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in 2009 to try to trace weapons from the United States to Mexican drug cartels by authorizing the sale of guns in the Southwest border region to known and suspected straw purchasers for the cartels.
But ATF agents were often told to abandon their surveillance of the weapons, allowing them — and the straw buyers — to disappear, according to House testimony from numerous agents. The only remaining hope for agents to track the guns was if other agencies found them at crime scenes or during drug raids and identified them by their serial numbers.
Authorities discovered two such weapons, sold under the operation, at the Arizona murder scene of Terry. According to testimony, agents in the region are terrified that some of the thousands of guns still at large will be used to kill more innocent people.
Napolitano said she first found out about the operation after Terry’s killing and that she is declining to comment on it further until the Department of Justice (DOJ) inspector general’s office completes its independent review of the operation. Attorney General Eric Holder ordered the IG investigation earlier this year.
“First of all, we wanted to make sure that the investigation into the cause of the death and prosecution was pursued vigorously,” she said.
“And that was being done. I did meet with the FBI agent-in-charge in Arizona at the time. At the time I was told that DOJ was referring the entire matter to the inspector general, so we have reserved judgment until that report has come about.”
McCain asked Napolitano to supply the committee with the specific date when she found out that guns sold under the operation were found at the scene of Terry’s killing.
McCain has long butted heads with Napolitano, who is the former governor of Arizona, but he is a latecomer to criticism of the administration regarding Fast and Furious.
The lead congressional investigators have been Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
As Issa has continued his probe into the operation and who authorized it, he has attracted a bevy of Democratic naysayers who contend that he is jeopardizing the DOJ IG’s investigation as well as the prosecution of nearly two dozen men accused of illegally purchasing and carrying weapons sold under the operation.
But two weeks ago, Issa got the first hard results from his investigation when former acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson was transferred to a lower office for his role in overseeing the agency during the Fast and Furious operation. Arizona U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke, who oversaw the legal aspects of the operation, resigned his position as well.
Both President Obama and Holder have said they were unaware of the operation while it was ongoing. And with Napolitano’s admission to not knowing about it, the top ranks of who gave the ultimate authorization are rapidly thinning.
Napolitano also testified on Tuesday that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is planning to adopt a revised set of screening methods for children younger than 12. In the next several months, TSA screeners will not require all children to take off their shoes and they will offer, with less frequency, a less intrusive pat-down for them, she said.
Joined by FBI Director Robert Mueller and the recently appointed director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Matthew Olsen, Napolitano said that the “specific and credible” but “unconfirmed” threat to the U.S. announced last week was ongoing and not yet resolved. Mueller said hundreds of people have been interviewed and the agencies were working furiously to resolve the threat.
— Originally published at 2:50 p.m. and updated at 8:17 p.m.