Top Justice Dept. official: ATF should have stopped 'gun walking' tactics

A senior Justice Department official on Tuesday sought to blame the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) for not stopping the controversial “gun walking” tactics used in the botched Fast and Furious program.

Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer also tried to shield Attorney General Eric Holder and other administration officials from culpability, claiming he had concerns about the ATF’s activities that he did not take up the chain of command.

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“At the time, I thought that dealing with the leadership of ATF was sufficient and reasonable … If I had known then what I know now, I, of course, would have told the deputy and the attorney general,” Breuer said.

“I thought we had dealt with it by talking to the ATF leadership,” he said.

Breuer became the highest-ranking Justice Department (DOJ) official to publicly admit to knowing about the ATF’s use of “gun walking” — the practice of allowing criminals to take possession of firearms — during Fast and Furious.

Breuer’s admission to a Senate Judiciary subcommittee could take some of the heat off of Holder, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who have all come under questioning from Republicans about whether they knew of or helped authorize the operation.

The Cabinet officials and President Obama have all denied any involvement or knowledge of the tactics used in Fast and Furious. The DOJ’s independent Inspector General (IG) launched its own investigation into the operation earlier this year at Holder’s direction.

In his testimony, Breuer said he realized last year that Fast and Furious was using the same taboo methods as an earlier gun-tracking operation, Wide Receiver, which was run on a smaller scale under President George W. Bush.

“I wish that at that time that I had said clearly to the deputy attorney general and the attorney general that in this case, Wide Receiver, we had determined that in 2006 and 2007, guns had walked,” said Breuer in testimony before the committee.

Under questioning from the committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Breuer indicated that former ATF deputy director William J. Hoover would have taken part in conversations about whether action should be taken with regard to the Fast and Furious tactics.

Hoover was reassigned within the ATF earlier this year in response to his involvement with Operation Fast and Furious, which oversaw the sale of thousands of firearms in the Southwest border region to known and suspected straw buyers for Mexican drug cartels.

Former acting director of the ATF Kenneth Melson was also reassigned in August, and former U.S. Attorney for Arizona Dennis Burke, who oversaw many of the legal aspects surrounding the operation, stepped down from office.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has been investigating the operation and has pointed to Breuer as one of the top-ranking DOJ officials who knew about the controversial tactics used in it.

On Monday, Issa received 650 pages of documents from DOJ on Fast and Furious that he had issued a subpoena for.

Holder is scheduled to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week, and Grassley has indicated that he will question him further on his role in the operation, which might have contributed to the death of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry. Holder is also scheduled to appear before the House Judiciary Committee next month.

Fast and Furious and its predecessor, Wide Receiver, were launched in an attempt to track and dismantle gun trafficking routes and rings that brought firearms purchased in the U.S. into Mexico.

Breuer said about 350 guns were allowed to “walk” under Operation Wide Receiver, which resulted in nearly a dozen prosecutions and no known U.S. deaths in 2006 and 2007.

Operation Fast and Furious began in 2009 and oversaw the sale of nearly 2,000 guns to known and suspected criminals. Two of those guns were found at the scene of Terry’s murder last December.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on Tuesday pointed to U.S. gun laws as the largest impediment to the ATF and the DOJ combating illegal firearms trafficking.

“I think this hunt for blame doesn’t really speak about the problem,” said Feinstein, referring to Congress’s investigation of Fast and Furious.

“And the problem is anybody can walk in and buy anything — .50-caliber weapons, sniper weapons — buy them in large amounts, and send them down to Mexico.”

Breuer agreed and said “the No. 1 tool would be if ATF were given the ability to know when guns are purchased.” Breuer also recommended that Congress grant the ATF and DOJ the ability to require gun dealers who knowingly sell firearms to criminals to forfeit their weapons and inventories.

“If I go into a dealership today and I want to buy 50 or 60 semiautomatic weapons, there is nothing that requires that to be in any way notified to ATF,” said Breuer.

— Originally posted at 1:36 p.m. and updated 8:32 p.m.