(WASHINGTON) — “Operation Fast and Furious,” the controversial undercover operation that allowed U.S. guns to be walked into Mexico, was a “risky strategy” that did not “adequately take into account the significant danger to public safety that it created.”
That was the conclusion Wednesday from the Office of the Inspector General, Department of Justice, after an investigation that spanned more than a year and a half.
The OIG investigation found that Attorney General Eric Holder was not aware of the strategy and tactics used in “Fast and Furious,” and turned up no evidence that Holder tried to cover up the operation, or mislead Congress about it. Holder was held in contempt of Congress earlier this year for allegedly withholding documents about DOJ’s “Fast and Furious” investigation from congressional investigators.
In a statement Wednesday, Holder said, “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.”
The IG report did find that a misleading letter that the DOJ sent to Congress was “troubling” because senior officials who were involved in drafting it knew, or should have known, that reckless behavior had occurred.
The political combat triggered by the flawed undercover operation played out in a series of contentious hearings on Capitol Hill in the past year. Behind the battles, the OIG found, was an undercover operation to catch gun-runners on the Southwest border that quickly turned bad.
Some of the 2,000 guns that made their way into Mexico as a result of “Operation Fast and Furious” were later recovered at crime scenes, including two found at the scene of the killing of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in December 2010.
The “Fast and Furious” strategy called for agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to conduct surveillance and review phone and financial records to track guns they believed to be going to Mexican drug lords, who could then be arrested. But ATF lost track of most of the guns, few arrests were made, and yet “the purchasing activity by Operation Fast and Furious subjects continued unabated, individuals who had engaged in serious and dangerous criminal conduct remained at large, and the public was put in harm’s way.”
The OIG investigation “revealed a series of misguided strategies, tactics, errors in judgment and management failures that permeated ATF Headquarters and the Phoenix Field Division, as well as the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona and at the Headquarters of the Department of Justice.”
The report also details serious mistakes in DOJ’s response to congressional inquiries about “Fast and Furious.”
The Inspector General’s review has recommended 14 Justice Department and ATF officials for disciplinary and administrative review, including the head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer.
As a result of the OIG findings, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jason Weinstein resigned his post Wednesday. The OIG report charged that Weinstein, a senior aide to Breuer, did not adequately share critical information about “Fast and Furious,” and its predecessor operation, “Wide Receiver,” with top DOJ officials.
Because that information did not reach the attorney general, more aggressive oversight of the operation did not occur, and misinformation was passed on to Congress, according to the OIG report. Weinstein and his attorney vigorously denied any wrongdoing, saying Weinstein did not receive the key information he needed from the agents carrying out the operation. The former acting director of ATF during the operation, Kenneth Melson, on Wednesday retired from the Department of Justice, effective immediately.
The report was highly critical of William Newell, the former special agent in charge of the Phoenix field office. “Newell also bore ultimate responsibility for the failures in Operation Fast and Furious,” the review found, citing his leadership position and involvement in the case.
Newell is working at ATF Headquarters in Washington.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, one of the leading congressional critics of DOJ’s handing of “Fast and Furious,” issued a statement Wednesday, saying, “Operation Fast and Furious was the height of irresponsibility on the part of a number of people from the ATF Phoenix field office all the way up to the Justice Department headquarters. And, we still don’t know the full extent of any White House involvement because they refused to be transparent and provide documents requested by the Inspector General. It’s clear that both the ATF and the Justice Department failed to provide meaningful oversight of Operation Fast and Furious.”
The OIG report also detailed the mistakes that lead to the killing of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry: “On January 16, 2010, one of the straw purchasers purchased three AK-47 style rifles from a Phoenix-area gun store. ATF agents learned about that purchase 3 days later and, consistent with the investigative strategy in the case, made no effort to locate (the purchaser) or seize the rifles although ATF had identified the suspect in November 2009. Two of the three rifles purchased by (the suspect) on January 16 were recovered 11 months later at the scene of the murder of Agent Terry, who was shot and killed on December 14, 2010, as he tried to arrest persons believed to be illegally entering the United States … “
The day after Agent Terry’s death, ATF agents arrested that suspect, Jaime Avila, and later 20 more alleged gun buyers and traffickers. As of Sept. 1, 2012, 14 defendants, including Avila, had entered guilty pleas to one or more counts of the indictment. In all, “Fast and Furious” identified more than 40 subjects believed to be connected to a trafficking conspiracy responsible for purchasing more than 2,000 firearms for about $1.5 million in cash. The vast majority of the firearms purchased by “Operation Fast and Furious” subjects were AK-47 style rifles and FN Herstal 5.7 caliber pistols.
The OIG report also noted, “What began as an important and promising investigation of serious firearms trafficking along the Southwest Border that was developed through the efforts of a short-staffed ATF enforcement group quickly grew into an investigation that lacked realistic objectives, did not have appropriate supervision within ATF or the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and failed to adequately assess the public safety consequences of not stopping or controlling the alarming purchasing activity.”
The report indicates that the OIG reviewed more than 100,000 documents and interviewed more than 130 witnesses, many on multiple occasions.
Inspector General Michael Horowitz said, “We operated with complete and total independence in our search for the truth, and the decision about what to cover in this report and the conclusions that we reached were made solely by me and my office.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNN
Steve Visser, CNN
Alanna Petroff, CNN
Seth Fiegerman, CNN