By Jordy Yager - 09/20/12 08:20 PM EDT
Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz pleaded with lawmakers on Thursday to make major structural reforms at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in the wake of a botched gun-tracking operation.
“There were a serious lack of controls in place in both the U.S. attorney's office and ATF operation,” Horowitz said at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing.
“There has to be a serious review and vetting of operations like this … and how to prevent that going forward, is watching carefully to make sure, in fact, the reforms we're all talking about aren't lost once the headlines of the report go away — that there is oversight.”
Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) have pledged to work on reforming the ATF and the U.S. attorney’s office to avoid repeating the mistakes that led to Operation Fast and Furious.
“Lanny Breuer looked me dead in the eye and told me that, in fact, there was nothing wrong with Fast and Furious — it was bad work on the ground,” said Issa. “And I can't understand for the life of me how he could have believed it and still have his job.”
Horowitz recommended that the DOJ take disciplinary or administrative action against four senior level officials — including Breuer, the assistant attorney general for DOJ’s criminal division — for not recognizing and alerting their superiors about the “gun walking” tactics, especially after reviewing a series of wiretap applications submitted for the operation that detailed how the case against gun traffickers was being built.
“If you were focused and looking at the question of gun walking, you would read these affidavits and see many red flags, in our view,” Horowitz said.
Jason Weinstein, the deputy attorney general, resigned on Wednesday after the release of the 471-page report. And the former head of the ATF, Ken Melson, retired from a lower-level position that he took last summer in the wake of the unfolding scandal over Fast and Furious.
Democrats focused their questions and comments Thursday on calls to strengthen gun laws and give the ATF and the U.S. attorney’s office more power to prosecute gun trafficking crimes, so that field agents don’t attempt to build cases in a sloppy fashion, such as by letting guns “walk” unsupervised into the hands of suspected or known criminals.
Some agents involved in Fast and Furious complained that the U.S. attorney's office advised them not to arrest the suspected gun runners because the current firearm trafficking laws would not result in strong convictions. They were advised to build their case by letting the suspects buy more guns; nearly 2,000 guns in all were sold under the operation.
“If you're worried about guns at the border, then let's make it a federal crime to traffic guns,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.). “Let's make it a crime for vast sales of these guns. Let's ban assault weapons that aren't used to do anything but kill people. They don't kill animals, they just kill people.”
The ATF has implemented a long series of reforms already. Last July, the agency began requiring field offices to give officials at ATF headquarters detailed monthly reports on “all significant, ongoing investigations.” And last November the ATF clarified its policy that “agents are required to take all reasonable steps to prevent a firearm’s criminal misuse.”
Horowitz suggested that the ATF develop and put into place a formal policy that covers how agents and case managers should interact with licensed firearm dealers. In Fast and Furious, gun dealers were given approval by the ATF to sell guns to buyers who were criminals — an illegal practice that needs to be addressed by an official policy change, according to the IG’s report.
Issa, meanwhile, pointed to the report as evidence that the House was right to place Holder in contempt of Congress earlier this year. Horowitz acknowledged that many of the documents that DOJ refused to provide to the Oversight Committee were essential to completing the IG’s investigation.
“Every document we asked for and reviewed and cited in this report we found to be relevant and important,” said Horowitz.
Holder refused to give Issa many of the internal DOJ documents that the chairman requested about the agency’s decision to retract a letter to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). The Justice Department falsely claimed in the letter to have done everything possible to stop guns from being trafficked into Mexico.
Issa received fewer than 8,000 documents from the DOJ over the course of his investigation into Fast and Furious, the tactics used and the DOJ’s interactions with Congress. In making the case to place Holder in contempt, Issa argued that the attorney general was attempting to thwart Congress’s investigation and oversight.
The DOJ gave the committee about 300 documents this week, and Issa said he hoped it was a sign of more cooperation to come.