Justice Department report clears Holder, but faults DOJ, ATF officials

The Justice Department’s inspector general (IG) on Wednesday cleared Attorney General Eric Holder in the controversial “Fast and Furious” operation but faulted several other federal officials for acting irresponsibly.

The 471-page IG report was issued after an 18-month investigation and recommends 14 agency officials receive administrative or disciplinary action for their role in the botched gun-tracking operation. 

But it exonerates Holder, who has repeatedly butted heads with congressional Republicans over what he knew about the program and when he knew it.

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The report, which reviewed more than 100,000 documents and interviewed more than 130 witnesses, found that Holder did not know about the controversial tactics before Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) sent him a letter raising questions about the operation he had received from whistleblowers within the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

It did find that ATF agents and the U.S. attorney’s office were responsible for not bringing serious concerns to their superiors about the tactics used in Fast and Furious. The operation let straw buyers for Mexican drug cartels buy and “walk” away with nearly 2,000 high-powered weapons — two of which were found at the murder scene of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in December 2010. 

Inspector General Michael Horowitz found that four high-ranking DOJ officials — Holder’s former Deputy Chief of Staff Monty Wilkinson, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jason Weinstein and former acting Deputy Attorney General Gary Grindler — knew enough about the dangers of the operation that they should have raised concerns with their immediate superiors.

The officials “failed to alert the attorney general to significant information about or flaws in those investigations,” the report states. 

The Justice Department announced shortly after the report’s release that former acting director of the ATF Kenneth Melson and Weinstein had both resigned. Melson headed the ATF while Fast and Furious was ongoing, stepped down last summer and was reassigned to a lower-level position. 

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who has led Congress’s investigation of Fast and Furious, along with Grassley, called on President Obama to hold the officials named in the IG’s report accountable for their mistakes in the operation. 

“It’s time for President Obama to step in and provide accountability for officials at both the Department of Justice and ATF who failed to do their jobs,” said Issa in a statement following the report’s release.

Both Obama and Holder have said they were waiting for the IG’s investigation to conclude before taking final administrative or disciplinary steps against officials involved in Fast and Furious.

The powerful chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has repeatedly lambasted Holder and the DOJ, saying that the agency has “blood on its hands” and that the attorney general was implementing a “cover-up,” trying to hide what the DOJ knew from Congress and the public. 

Holder referenced the report’s findings on Wednesday as he blasted Issa and other Republicans for jumping the gun with allegations of wrongdoing over the past 18 months, long before the IG had completed its investigation. 

“It is unfortunate that some were so quick to make baseless accusations before they possessed the facts about these operations — accusations that turned out to be without foundation and that have caused a great deal of unnecessary harm and confusion,” said Holder in a statement. 

“I hope today’s report acts as a reminder of the dangers of adopting as fact unsubstantiated conclusions before an investigation of the circumstances is completed.”

Issa is planning to hold a hearing with Horowitz on Thursday that will explore the long-awaited report at length. 

The report found that no high-level DOJ officials knowingly approved of the gun-walking tactics. 

But it also states that when Weinstein and Breuer approved wiretap applications for the operation, they knew enough about similarly controversial tactics that had been used in a previous operation, “Wide Receiver,” years earlier.

Democrats have pointed to Wide Receiver, which began under President George W. Bush’s administration, as evidence that the problem of “gun walking” was not a recent one. The country’s firearm laws need to be strengthened so that prosecutors have more tools to take down gun traffickers, they argue. 

Republicans have largely focused their attacks on Holder and senior DOJ officials, saying that they misled Congress in a Feb. 4, 2011, letter to Grassley, in which the agency stated that it makes every attempt to stop weapons from crossing the border into Mexico. The letter was rescinded nearly nine months later.  

Wednesday’s IG report details the gradual process, over a series of months, by which senior DOJ and ATF officials became aware that statements made in the letter to Grassley were not true. It does not indicate that Holder or other senior officials intentionally misled Grassley, however. 

Deputy Attorney General James Cole told the IG that, although doubts about the letter’s truthfulness emerged in March, the DOJ wanted to make sure it had all of the facts about Fast and Furious before taking the “fairly dramatic step” of rescinding the letter. 

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) on Wednesday said the report exonerates Holder and proves that many of the claims that Republicans have made — that the attorney general knew about the failed tactics and deliberately misled Congress — are false.

“The IG’s comprehensive report debunks many of the extreme allegations made by Republicans,” said Cummings in a statement. 

“Neither the attorney general nor senior DOJ officials authorized or approved of gun-walking in Fast and Furious … gun-walking started under the Bush administration in 2006, and … ATF agents in Phoenix and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona share responsibility for misguided operations spanning five years.”

The acting director of the ATF, B. Todd Jones, told reporters on Wednesday that it was a “sad day” for the agency. The ATF takes full responsibility, he said, for “its failures to exercise proper leadership and oversight of [Fast and Furious and Wide Receiver.]”

In response to questions from The Hill, Jones said that he hoped Congress would give the ATF some time to get its structural and communications affairs in order before approaching legislation that could reorganize the agency. He also said that the Senate’s failure to confirm a permanent ATF director for the past six years has taken a toll on the overall confidence and continuity of the agency.