By Jordy Yager and Pete Kasperowicz - 11/08/11 03:20 PM EST
Attorney General Eric Holder admitted Tuesday that a federal gun-tracking operation was flawed and said it should never have happened.
In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Holder condemned the controversial Operation Fast and Furious, which has come under intense congressional scrutiny for its use of “gun walking.”
Holder said the effects of Fast and Furious will be felt for years to come as the thousands of firearms sold to known and suspected criminals are used in future crimes.
“I want to be clear: Any instance of so-called ‘gun walking’ is unacceptable,” Holder said.
“This operation was flawed in concept, as well as in execution. And, unfortunately, we will feel its effects for years to come as guns that were lost during this operation continue to show up at crime scenes both here and in Mexico. This should never have happened. And it must never happen again.”
Holder’s appearance before the panel was his first since internal Justice Department memos raised questions about whether he misled the House Judiciary Committee on May 3 when he testified about the Fast and Furious operation.
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At that House hearing, Holder was asked when he first became aware of Fast and Furious. He replied, “I’m not sure of the exact date, but I probably heard about Fast and Furious for the first time over the last few weeks.” The DOJ memos, however, suggest that Holder was made aware of Fast and Furious briefing papers as early as last year.
Holder clarified his remarks Tuesday, saying that he first learned about Fast and Furious and its gun-walking tactics after news reports emerged based on the concerns of whistleblowers. He said he immediately asked for an inspector general investigation.
“I first learned about the tactics and the phrase ‘Operation Fast and Furious’ at the beginning of this year — I think when it became a matter of all of this public controversy,” Holder said.
“In my testimony before the House committee, I did say ‘a few weeks.’ I probably could have said ‘a couple of months.’ I don’t think that what I said in terms of using the term ‘a few weeks’ was inaccurate, based on what happened.”
Holder said he couldn’t be expected, as attorney general, to personally oversee the day-to-day details of every single operation conducted by the DOJ. He promised to hold accountable those involved in Fast and Furious’s poor decisionmaking once the IG investigation is completed.
Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said DOJ lied when it sent him a letter in February claiming it did not approve the tactics used in Fast and Furious, which was run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“In the nine months since then, mounting evidence has put the lie to those claims,” Grassley said of the Justice letter. “We have learned that instead of making every effort to interdict, ATF actually allowed the transfer of firearms in several operations, in hopes of making bigger cases.”
Holder said he regrets that the DOJ officials who wrote that letter to Grassley used inaccurate information. But the attorney general stressed that officials believed the information to be true at the time, saying they did not intentionally mislead Congress.
“There was information in that letter that was inaccurate,” Holder said. “The letter could have been better crafted.
“People in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, people at ATF, people who themselves have now indicated in their congressional testimony before the House that they were not aware of the tactics that were employed — as a result of that, the information that is contained in that February 4 letter to you was not, in fact, accurate. And ... I regret that.”
Grassley pointed to Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer’s testimony before the Senate committee last week. Breuer said he became aware in 2010 of the “gun-walking” tactics used in 2006-2007 during another gun-tracking operation, known as Operation Wide Receiver, and regretted not alerting Holder to them at that time or making the connection between the tactics in Wide Receiver and Fast and Furious.
Holder stood by Breuer on Tuesday, saying he saw no reason for him to offer his resignation. Breuer has been leading the DOJ’s efforts to crack down on illegal gun trafficking and has been a great asset to the agency, Holder said.
Holder has been at the center of an increasingly heated investigation by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). Issa has suggested that the attorney general might have been responsible for Fast and Furious, arguing that if he wasn’t aware of it, he should be fired for incompetence.
Issa’s investigation has spurred scores of calls for Holder’s resignation from Republicans and outside groups such as the National Rifle Association.
On Tuesday, Holder blasted the GOP rhetoric.
“I am determined to ensure that our shared concerns about Operation Fast and Furious lead to more than headline-grabbing Washington ‘gotcha’ games and cynical political point-scoring,” he said.
Holder said the Fast and Furious debacle points to the need for a crackdown on illegal arms trafficking.
“We must be careful not to lose sight of the critical problem that this flawed investigation has highlighted: We are losing the battle to stop the flow of illegal guns to Mexico,” Holder said.
“One critical first step should be for congressional leaders to work with us to provide ATF with the resources and statutory tools it needs to be effective.”
Democrats have long pointed to Fast and Furious and the testimony of ATF agents before Congress as evidence that federal law enforcement authorities need more tools to cut down on illegal gun trafficking.
A growing chorus of Democrats could be heard Tuesday also trying to link the debate over Fast and Furious to Wide Receiver, which was run under then-President George W. Bush.
—This story was last updated at 7:54 p.m.