J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — A Republican House committee chairman said Thursday that a watchdog report on a bungled gun-trafficking probe in Arizona is a huge step toward restoring public faith in the Justice Department.
Republicans praised the findings of Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who faulted the agency for misguided strategies, errors in judgment and management failures in an operation that he said disregarded public safety and allowed hundreds of guns to reach Mexican drug gangs.
"There needs to be supervision; there needs to be oversight," and law enforcement operations like Fast and Furious need to be referred at the start to "the highest levels" of the department, Horowitz testified. His report faulted mid-level and senior officials for not briefing Attorney General Eric Holder much earlier.
The report proves that "you could do the job" of digging into the facts in Operation Fast and Furious, Issa told Horowitz.
The inspector general was walking a fine political line between vociferous Republican criticisms of the operation and Democratic defenses of Holder.
"We found no evidence that the attorney general was aware" of Operation Fast and Furious or the much-disputed gun-walking tactic associated with it, Horowitz told Democratic Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton.
House Republicans see the IG's report as vindication because it criticizes one of their favorite targets: Holder's Justice Department.
While critical, 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 actually 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. The operation begin in Phoenix in late 2009.
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 provided some validation for the Republican-led investigation.
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.
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