Lanny Breuer, head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, conceded Tuesday that he had been informed in April 2010 that the department, during the George W. Bush administration, allowed guns to “walk” into Mexico, but did not inform his bosses about the controversial tactic.
“Knowing what I now know was a pattern of unacceptable and misguided tactics used by the ATF, I regret that I did not alert others within the leadership of the Department of Justice to the tactics used in Operation Wide Receiver when they first came to my attention,” Breuer said, in a statement Monday.
In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday, Breuer also made it clear that those at the top of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Arizona U.S. Attorney’s office misled him about the extent to which guns were allowed to be taken into Mexico without those in the possession of the firearms being stopped. He said when allegations about recent gun walking surfaced, ATF officials “adamantly” said those claims were wrong.
Kenneth Melson, acting director of the ATF subsequently was removed from his position and transferred to a new one and Dennis Burke, the Arizona U.S. Attorney, resigned.that leadership.
Breuer said he had expressed his regret to Attorney General Eric Holder for not having informed others about the gun walking allegations.
It remains to be seen what impact the gun walking debacle will have on the career of the politically ambitious Breuer.
The controversial tactic, in which agents from the allowed guns to “walk” into Mexico in an effort to trace them to drug cartels, was used in Operation Wide Receiver during the George W. Bush administration. When a Criminal Division prosecutor learned of the tactic during the Barack Obama administration, she informed Breuer of the issue, he said.
ATF continued to use the tactic during Operation Fast and Furious, which allegedly resulted in the selling of at least 2,000 firearms to drug cartel members in Arizona via straw buyers. The ATF then allegedly permitted the guns to be trafficked to Mexico, where the bureau lost track of them. Two guns from the operation were recovered in December at the scene of a shootout between Border Patrol agents and Mexican bandits near Rio Rico, Ariz., that resulted in the death of Border Patrol agent Brian A. Terry. Other guns sold during the operation have been linked to violent crime scenes in Mexico. Senate Judiciary Committee ranking Republican Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and House Government Oversight and Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) are conducting their own probe.
Breuer said in his statement that the ATF and Burke’s office “repeatedly assured” him that allegations about gun walking in Fast and Furious were not true, so he did not make a connection between the two operations–Wide Receiver and Fast and Furious. As a result, he did not warn others at the department.
“That was a mistake, and I regret not having done so,” he said.
In a statement, Grassley said that DOJ turned over more than 650 pages of documents connected to Fast and Furious. “At first glance, though, the documents indicate that contrary to previous denials by the Justice Department, the criminal division has a great deal of culpability in sweeping the previous Wide Receiver strategy under the rug and then allowing the subsequent Operation Fast and Furious to continue without asking key questions,” he said..
He added, “It also appears that the impression left to Senate Judiciary Committee staff was false during a briefing by Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jason Weinstein and several others last February. Despite their denials of gun walking, it appears that senior DOJ officials clearly knew that it had happened in Operation Wide Receiver and ignored the red flags that it was happening in Fast and Furious.”