WASHINGTON — House Republicans investigating a bungled gun-trafficking probe in Arizona see vindication in a long-awaited watchdog report that criticizes one of their favorite targets: Attorney General Eric Holder's Justice Department. But Justice's inspector general absolved Holder himself of blame.
The department's internal watchdog, Michael Horowitz, will be the only witness Thursday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, a day after he faulted the department for misguided strategies, errors in judgment and management failures in an operation that disregarded public safety and allowed hundreds of guns to reach Mexican drug gangs.
"The inspector general's report confirms findings by Congress' investigation of a near total disregard for public safety in Operation Fast and Furious," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the committee's chairman.
However, committee Republicans will have to tread carefully. The IG's report knocks down some of the many accusations Republicans have made about the Obama administration during their year-and-a-half-long investigation of the operation by the Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. In places, the report reads like a rebuttal of House Republicans' past statements.
"We found no evidence" that staff at the department or at ATF informed the attorney general about Operation Fast and Furious before 2011, the report says.
Former Acting Deputy Attorney General Gary Grindler received a briefing on Operation Fast and Furious in 2010.
"We found, however, that the briefing failed to alert Grindler to problems in the investigation," the report says.
"We found no evidence to suggest" that Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, head of the Justice Department's criminal division, was aware that the ATF and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona had adopted a strategy of not interdicting firearms, the report adds.
Still, the inspector general's report was a form of validation for the Republican-led investigation, saying lower-level officials should have briefed Holder about the investigation much earlier.
The inspector general referred 14 people for possible department disciplinary action in Operation Fast and Furious and a separate, earlier probe known as Wide Receiver, undertaken during the George W. Bush administration — Grindler, Breuer and two other people from the Justice Department, four from ATF headquarters, four at ATF in Phoenix and two from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix.
A former head of the ATF, Kenneth Melson, and a deputy assistant attorney general in Justice's criminal division in Washington, Jason Weinstein, left the department upon the report's release Wednesday — the first by retirement, the second by resignation.
Operation Fast and Furious involved "gun-walking," an experimental tactic barred under longstanding department policy. ATF agents in Arizona allowed suspected straw purchasers, in these cases believed to be working for Mexican drug gangs, to leave Phoenix-area gun stores with weapons in order to track them and bring charges against gun-smuggling kingpins who long had eluded prosecution, but they lost track of most of the guns.
Two of the 2,000 weapons thought to have been acquired by illicit buyers in the Fast and Furious investigation were recovered at the scene of a shootout that claimed the life of U.S. border agent Brian Terry. About 1,400 of the total have yet to be recovered.
The experimental operations were a response to widespread criticisms of the agency's anti-smuggling efforts. Because of thin ATF staffing and weak penalties, the traditional strategy of arresting suspected straw buyers as soon as possible had failed to stop the flow of tens of thousands of guns to Mexico — more than 68,000 in the past five years.
Fast and Furious has produced charges against 20 gun traffickers, 14 of whom have pleaded guilty so far.
Horowitz indicated he will continue his investigation of matters related to Fast and Furious, Issa noted, including a look at possible retaliation against whistle-blowers and an effort to have the Justice Department unseal wiretap applications that were approved by senior officials.
A cover memo reviewed by Weinstein for one of the wiretap applications in Fast and Furious "clearly suggests" ATF agents had allowed a known illicit gun purchaser to continue his illegal activities for a gun-trafficking ring selling weapons to a Mexican drug cartel, the inspector general's report found.
In response to the criticism, Weinstein's lawyer said that before reviewing any Fast and Furious wiretaps, Weinstein had been assured by ATF Deputy Assistant Director William McMahon that guns were being aggressively interdicted.
During the House committee's investigation, President Barack Obama ordered Holder to withhold from the House committee, under executive privilege, some documents describing how the Justice Department responded to the panel. The Republican-controlled House voted to hold Holder in contempt, and Issa's committee has filed a civil lawsuit to make the administration turn over the documents. Horowitz said he was not denied access to any of the documents.