Mass DOJ Departures Imminent - Holder? Yet to be Seen
WASHINGTON—A Justice Department watchdog cited a “pattern of serious failures” in the oversight of the botched Fast and Furious operation against gun traffickers, in a harsh report that contributed to the departure of two senior officials.
Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s 471-page report was the most extensive review to date of actions by officials in Arizona and Washington that led to the operation that lost track of guns sold to suspected smugglers. In addition to the two officials who left, Mr. Horowitz said 12 others from the Justice Department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives should be reviewed for possible sanctions.
The report offered some vindication for Attorney General Eric Holder, who has maintained against Republican critics that he wasn’t aware of the tactics until early 2011. But it took to task several senior officials working under Mr. Holder. The two departing officials were Kenneth Melson, a former acting ATF chief who retired from another Justice Department post, and Jason Weinstein, who resigned under pressure from his job as an aide to Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, the department said Wednesday.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), the chairman of the House oversight committee who successfully pushed to hold Mr. Holder in contempt of Congress over his refusal to hand over some documents in the case, said the report rightly faults Mr. Holder’s “inner circle.”
Mr. Holder “has clearly known about these unacceptable failures, yet has failed to take appropriate action for over a year and a half,” Mr. Issa said.
For his part, Mr. Holder said the report underscored that he moved quickly to stop the tactics once he learned of them. In a statement, he denounced those who 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.”
By dismissing some of the most heated allegations against Mr. Holder while finding dysfunction beneath him, the report leaves room for both sides to battle on. Congressional Republicans continue to demand access to White House documents that President Barack Obama has shielded, citing executive privilege.
Operation Fast and Furious was run by the ATF in Phoenix in 2009 and 2010. Agents allowed sales of about 2,000 guns, mostly variants of AK-47 rifles, to suspected smugglers. The aim was to prosecute top traffickers, but many of the firearms have turned up at crime scenes in Mexico and the U.S., and hundreds more are unaccounted for.
The report lays out repeated examples of veteran lawyers and law-enforcement officials at the ATF and the Justice Department failing to ask questions or read documents laying out a highly risky operation. Officials who had qualms failed to follow up or read documents that provided more details, which perhaps could have led to the shutdown of the operation, the report said.
The scandal has prompted an overhaul of operations at ATF, and even consideration of a name change to the Violent Crime Bureau, as the agency tries to get past years of controversy that comes in part from the politics of gun control in the U.S. The agency has been without a Senate-approved director since 2006 because of objections from gun-rights organizations.
The report offered some vindication for Attorney General Eric Holder, but it took to task several senior officials working under him.
Fast and FuriousOfficials cited by the inspector general:
- Kenneth Melson, former ATF acting director: He ‘bore ultimate responsibility for the failures in Operation Fast and Furious, particularly in light of his close involvement with the office’s highest profile and most resource intensive case.’ Stepped down from ATF in August 2011. Retired from Justice Department Wednesday.
- Jason Weinstein, a top aide to Lanny Breuer: He is harshly criticized in the report, which concluded he was the most senior person at the Justice Department in a position to identify the problem with Fast and Furious. Resigned from Justice Department Tuesday.
- Eric Holder, attorney general: He didn’t learn about the operation until early 2011 and wasn’t aware of allegations of ‘gun-walking’ in the operation until February 2011. House voted in June to hold him in contempt of Congress; legal battle continues.
- Lanny Breuer, assistant attorney general: He ‘did not authorize’ the operation, but failed to notify higher-ups of flawed techniques being used by the ATF. Remains in post.
Mr. Horowitz faulted officials overseeing both operations for “failure to adequately consider the risk to the public safety in the United States and Mexico.”
The report came 645 days after a Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry, was killed in a shootout with traffickers in Arizona. Two guns tied to Fast and Furious were found at the scene.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), who has led the congressional probe with Mr. Issa, called on Mr. Holder “to hold people accountable.”
The most senior official singled out is Mr. Weinstein, who “was in a position to identify the similarity between the inappropriate tactics used in operations Wide Receiver and Fast and Furious,” the report said.
The report added that he forwarded to superiors inaccurate information provided by the ATF and other officials when Mr. Grassley began asking questions in February 2011.
In an interview, Mr. Weinstein said the report unfairly blamed him. “I was horrified when I discovered what I was told was inaccurate,” he said.
Michael Bromwich, a former Justice Department inspector general now representing Mr. Weinstein, called the report “badly flawed” because, he said, it implicitly argues Mr. Weinstein should have been “a mind reader.”
Mr. Weinstein was among the senior officials at the Justice Department who earlier had raised concerns about the Wide Receiver operation. He and Mr. Breuer have said they didn’t know about the tactics used in Fast and Furious until it was too late. Mr. Breuer has acknowledged he should have done more to ensure the tactics weren’t used again.
A U.S. official familiar with the matter said Mr. Holder has “admonished” Mr. Breuer, but no additional discipline is expected.
Mr. Melson, who was acting head of the ATF during Fast and Furious, said in a statement: “While I firmly disagree with many of the speculative assumptions, conclusions and characterizations in the inspector general’s report, as the acting director of the agency I was ultimately responsible for the actions of each employee.”
The ATF said it would use the report to pursue disciplinary investigations, which could result in firings or other administrative sanctions.
“There are many more successes than we have failures, and when we fail, it hurts,” said B. Todd Jones, the acting ATF head. “And all we can do is get up off the mat again and start swinging.”
Mr. Jones said the agency was still working to fully integrate itself with the Justice Department, which it joined in 2003 as part of a post-9/11 shake-up of government agencies. He added that the agency has had not just structural but leadership challenges—noting that the ATF has had six leaders in the same period that one man, Robert Mueller, has led the Federal Bureau of Investigation.