The report from an exhaustive internal investigation of the Justice Department’s handling of Operation Fast and Furious should put an emphatic end to allegations of a cover up that Republican critics have pushed against the Justice Department and the White House over what amounts to a sting operation that went wrong.
Organized by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and federal prosecutors in Arizona, Operation Fast and Furious allowed agents to hold off from seizing illegal weapons in the hope the bureau could follow the trail to build a gun-smuggling case against Mexican drug cartels. Instead, the bureau lost track of thousands of guns during the operation, which lasted from late 2009 until early in 2011. In December 2010, U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in a shootout near the Mexican border. Two weapons found at the scene turned out to be among the firearms missing in the “gun-walking” scheme.
In hearings during the past 18 months, Darrell Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, accused Attorney General Eric Holder of withholding from the committee crucial documentation of Holder’s culpability in the failed program. The confrontation culminated in June with the House citing Holder for contempt of Congress.
The Justice Department’s inspector general found no evidence Holder knew about the program before Congress started asking questions and no evidence of a cover-up or of a conspiracy among senior administration officials to stoke gun violence in order to drive stiffer gun laws.
What the report uncovered, and for which it sharply faulted the department, was a bungled operation characterized by “a series of misguided strategies, tactics, errors in judgment and management failures” on the part of ATF agents, senior officials and prosecutors. Among the failures, key officials proceeded with Fast and Furious, without following information that should have alerted them to problems. They did so even when aware of failures in a similar program in 2006.
The report cited more than a dozen officials, including two of Holder’s top aides, for possible disciplinary action, steps Holder is taking, having already reassigned all senior ATF officials involved in the case. Considering the risk to public safety and the political fallout from the gun-walking operation, a big concern is the apparent breakdown in the chain of communication in this instance at the leadership level of the department.
Notwithstanding the personal relief the report must mean for the attorney general, the findings highlight a communications gap that kept the nation’s chief law enforcement official effectively out of the loop in a sensitive operation for which he ultimately is accountable.