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U.S. Justice Officials Faulted Over Mexico Gun Operation

An 18-month investigation by the U.S. Justice Department’s inspector general has found management failures and flawed strategy in a federal law enforcement operation designed to track guns illegally flowing to Mexican drug cartels.

One senior official retired and another resigned as a result of yesterday’s 471-page report, and the inspector general recommended another 12 be considered for disciplinary or administrative action. The report concluded that Operation Fast and Furious was plagued by miscommunication and unaccountable officials inside the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and at the Justice Department.

Republicans have faulted Attorney General Eric Holder’s oversight of Fast and Furious and his responses to lawmakers’ queries about it. Holder wasn’t found in the report to have known about or been involved with the failures of the operation until early 2011, when lawmakers began to probe its fallout.

“Our review of Operation Fast and Furious and related matters 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,” said Inspector General Michael Horowitz said in testimony prepared for a House hearing today.

Seeking Details

Republican lawmakers, led by Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa and Representative Darrell Issa of California, have battled with the Justice Department for months for details of the program, testimony and documents as they attempted to trace how high up the failures reached. ATF is part of the department. Issa, chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is holding the hearing featuring Horowitz.

More than 100 House lawmakers have called for Holder’s resignation as a result of the operation, his work on terrorism policy and the department’s refusal to give certain documents to congressional investigators looking into the program. In June, the chamber voted to place Holder in contempt of Congress, a first for a sitting cabinet member.

Holder, in a statement yesterday after the report’s release, said that it outlined a strategy that had been in place -- and was driven by field agents -- since 2006 and that the department’s leadership didn’t know or authorize “the use of the flawed strategy or tactics.”

‘Baseless Allegations’

Kenneth Melson, the former acting director for the ATF, retired effective immediately, Holder said. Jason Weinstein, the deputy assistant attorney general who is identified in the report as learning of the program and failing to inform his superiors or take action to halt its existence, resigned.

Holder criticized the lawmakers conducting their own probe into the operation, calling it “unfortunate that some were so quick to make baseless allegations before they possessed the facts.”

Holder said he hopes the report “acts as a reminder of the dangers of adopting as fact unsubstantiated conclusions before an investigation of the circumstances is completed.”

Issa, whose staff already released a report describing failures by ATF and plans to release two more installments, said the inspector general’s report confirms “a near total disregard for public safety in Operation Fast and Furious.”

Issa pointed to Weinstein, as well as former acting Deputy Attorney General Gary Grindler -- now Holder’s chief of staff -- and Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer as examples of Holder’s “inner circle” that were referred by the inspector general for possible disciplinary or administrative action. Grindler and Breuer are cited in the report for failing to inform superiors when they had information on the operation.

Inquiry Response

“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,” Issa said in a statement. “Attorney General Holder has clearly known about these unacceptable failures yet has failed to take appropriate action for over a year and a half.”

The report was Horowitz’s first major investigation as inspector general, one heavily anticipated by members of both parties and the Justice Department. Horowitz, who held senior positions in the department’s Criminal Division under President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush, was confirmed by the Senate in April, after the investigation was under way.

The report criticized how the Justice Department handled its response to congressional inquiries into the operation, noting that a letter to Grassley in May 2011 reaffirming that Testimony a month later created “ambiguity and uncertainty” about whether the department was defending those same statements, according to the report.

U.S. Attorney

The ATF is labeled along with the U.S. Attorney’s office as bearing the “primary responsibility” in the program designed to track U.S. guns into Mexico and identify leaders in Mexican drug cartels.

With its inability to track the guns in the program, along with failures to act against the purchasers of the weapons, the report labeled the agency conduct and supervision “significantly flawed.”

ATF officials said that they’ve made improvements since the operation.

“We’ve made significant changes to ATF management and business practices, and we will make sure that this agency puts public safety first in all of our investigations,” B. Todd Jones, the acting ATF director, said in a statement.

‘Inappropriate Tactics’

Weinstein, a 15-year department veteran who was overseeing the Criminal Division’s violent crime program and was aware of a prior operation, called Wide Receiver, that was similar to the Fast and Furious, was labeled in the report as “the most senior person in the department in April and May 2010 who was in a position to identify the similarity between the inappropriate tactics used in Operation Wide Receiver and Fast and Furious.”

His knowledge of the two programs should have caused him to “ask questions about the operational details of Fast and Furious,” according to the report.

Weinstein, in his resignation letter to Holder, called the report’s conclusions “completely false.”

“For me to have done this would have run counter to the entire body of work I compiled during the past 15 years, and for that reason alone such allegations should have given pause to the inspector general,” Weinstein wrote in the letter dated yesterday. His lawyer, Michael R. Bromwich, called the report “badly flawed.”

Melson, in a statement, said while he disagreed “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.”

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