FBI Director Robert Mueller said on Wednesday that any suggestions of a cover-up in the botched gun-tracking operation known as Fast and Furious are groundless, and he vowed that the slaying of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry exactly a year ago would not go unpunished.
Appearing at an oversight hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mueller was given a chance by the chairman, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), to respond to what Leahy termed “conspiracy theories” swirling around the death of Terry, who was killed in a border shootout a year ago Wednesday. Two guns found at the scene were linked to the failed gun-tracking enterprise run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Perhaps the most sensational accusation that has arisen in the past year is that there may have been a third gun found at the scene, and that its presence may have been concealed. This idea has been floated by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. In public comments in recent weeks, Issa has stopped short of accusing the FBI of tampering with evidence in its investigation of the shooting but has asserted repeatedly that the Department of Justice is not being entirely candid.
And that, Mueller said, is just not so. “There were two guns found at the scene — there were not three,” Mueller told the committee. He theorized that suspicions that a third gun was found may have arisen because the two that were found were tagged “two and three,” meaning only that another piece of evidence, which was not a weapon, happened to get the “one” designation.
“We will bring to justice anyone involved” in Terry’s death, Mueller said.
Mueller got a friendly reception from Senate Judiciary Democrats and Republicans alike, in marked contrast to the hostile treatment Attorney General Eric Holder got last week at the House Judiciary Committee (see Main Justice’s report). But while personally cordial toward Mueller, the Senate panel’s top Republican, Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, made it clear that he is not close to being satisfied over the DOJ’s explanations.
“My investigation into the ATF’s failed Operation Fast & Furious continues,” Grassley said at the outset. “I sent Director Mueller a letter dated October 20, 2011, asking some questions about the FBI’s investigation of the murder of Agent Terry. I have not yet received a response to that letter, but I have talked with Director Mueller about the case. I want a commitment from Director Mueller that my letter will be answered in writing. The Terry family deserves answers about Agent Terry’s murder and answering my letter is another step toward getting those answers.”
Fast and Furious, in which straw buyers were allowed to buy hundreds of guns so that the ATF could track them across the U.S.-Mexican border, helping law enforcement root out Mexican gangsters, is acknowledged to have backfired badly as hundreds of guns wound up in the hands of those gangsters.
Compounding the embarrassment, Holder and other high Department of Justice officials have made comments about Fast and Furious that later required clarification and back-tracking. Republican critics of the DOJ, especially in the House, have not been soothed by Holder’s assurances that there was no attempt to deceive, with some Republicans calling for Holder to resign. (Grassley has called for Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer, who heads the Criminal Division, to quit or be fired over Fast and Furious.)
Grassley also said he is still not satisfied with the official conclusion that Bruce E. Ivins, who worked at an Army laboratory in Maryland, was solely responsible for the deadly 2001 anthrax attacks. Nor has the DOJ done anything to dispel his suspicions that Ivins, who killed himself in 2008, had accomplices, Grassley said.
And, while he did not mention it on Wednesday, Leahy, whose office was the target of an anthrax letter, has also said he believes someone else may have been involved. “Call it an old prosecutor’s instinct,” he said months ago.