Update 5 p.m.: This story was updated to include additional information.
Operation Fast and Furious was riddled with a “series of misguided strategies, tactics, errors in judgment and management failures” that permeated ATF headquarters in Washington, D.C., and on down to the ATF Phoenix Field Division and the Arizona U.S. Attorney’s Office, according to the Justice Department Inspector General report released Thursday.
The long-awaited 471-page report, which accounts for more than a year of 130 interviews and review of 100,000 documents, details the miscommunication and mismanagement among the agencies and agents involved, in addition to looking at the Justice Department’s flawed response to Congress about the botched gun-walking operation.
Since the report’s publication Thursday, two top officials have left their positions: Then-Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Acting Director Kenneth Melson and DOJ Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division Jason Weinstein. Attorney General Eric Holder is exonerated in the report, stating that he was never made aware nor did he authorize the tactics, which he has since called “fatally flawed,” in the investigation.
“In the course of our review we identified individuals ranging from line agents and prosecutors in Phoenix and Tucson to senior ATF officials in Washington, D.C., who bore a share of responsibility for ATF’s knowing failure in both these operations to interdict firearms illegally destined for Mexico,” the report states, “and for doing so without adequately taking into account the danger to public safety that flowed from this risky strategy.”
In a statement Thursday, Holder said the individuals within ATF and the U.S. Attorney’s office pinpointed in the IG report have been referred to the “appropriate entities for review and consideration of potential personnel actions.”
“It is unfortunate that some 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,” Holder said. “I hope today’s report acts as a reminder of the dangers of adopting as fact unsubstantiated conclusions before an investigation of the circumstances is completed.”
The House Oversight Committee will be questioning the Inspector General Thursday morning on his findings. The committee, lead by chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), has spearheaded the more than 18-month congressional investigation into the department’s handling of the operation. The investigation hit a major flash point in June when the House of Representatives made history by finding Holder in “contempt of Congress over his refusal to disclose certain documents to the committee. Holder argued that many of the thousands of documents under congressional subpoena related to ongoing investigations. In dramatic fashion, President Barack Obama asserted executive privilege over the subpoenaed documents just minutes before the House committee began contempt proceedings. House Republicans are suing Holder in an attempt to overturn Obama’s assertion of privilege.
“Contrary to the denials of the Attorney General and his political defenders in Congress, the investigation found that information in wiretap applications approved by senior Justice Department officials in Washington did contain red flags showing reckless tactics and faults Attorney General Eric Holder’s inner circle for their conduct,” Issa said in a statement Thursday. “It’s time for President Obama to step in and provide accountability for officials at both the Department of Justice and ATF who failed to do their jobs.”
Committee ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said in a statement that the report “debunks many of the extreme allegations made by Republicans.”
Fast and Furious was a gun smuggling intelligence operation headed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Agents sold some-2,000 firearms to straw buyers, who then smuggled them over the border to Mexico. The gun-walking operation intended to track the flow of guns to gain intelligence on cartel members in Mexico. The operation backfired, however, when ATF lost track of hundreds of guns. Two guns from the investigation were found at the scene of a shootout between U.S. Border Patrol Agents and Mexican bandits near the Arizona-Mexico border. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed in the firefight.
ATF whistleblowers brought the investigation to the attention of Congress about two months after Terry’s death.
Many on Capitol Hill have been anxious for the report’s release as Holder said he would not take any corrective actions, if warranted, until Horowitz’s investigation was complete.
The Justice Department has said the genesis and supervision of the investigation began in Phoenix with the local ATF field office and the Arizona U.S. Attorney’s Office. Then-U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke, considered by many to be a rising star within the Democratic party, resigned his post after the fall out from the operation began. Then-acting head of ATF Melson left that position last year as the scandal intensified.
ATF acting director B. Todd Jones said he has referred information in the report to the agency’s Office of Professional Responsibility to determine if corrective actions are warranted.
“ATF accepts full responsibility for its failure to exercise proper leadership and oversight of these investigations,” Jones said in a statement. “Combined with the lack of effective and accurate internal communication up and down the chain of command, our shortcomings led to a series of regrettable events.”
The department drew ire from congressional leaders after it had to withdraw a February 2011 memo stating that high-level officials had only recently discovered the tactics being used in the operation.