UPDATED: September 19, 2012, 6:05 PM
There is no evidence that Attorney General Eric Holder and high-ranking officials at the Justice Department knew that guns were allowed to “walk” during an ATF operation known as Fast and Furious, according to a report released on Wednesday afternoon by the department’s internal watchdog.
Following a 19-month investigation, the Inspector General found that the decision not to take action against low-level “straw purchasers” was made by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the Arizona U.S. Attorney’s office. Their decision, according to the report, “was primarily the result of tactical and strategic decisions by the agents and prosecutors, rather than because of any legal limitation on their ability to do so.” Dennis Burke, the head of the U.S. Attorney’s office at the time, resigned from his position in August 2011.
The IG report is considered to be the most comprehensive and least partisan account of the scandal available to date. Unlike investigators with Rep. Darrell Issa’s House Oversight Committee, DOJ investigators had access to criminal investigation files.
Fast and Furious was the Arizona component of a broader effort to combat gun trafficking known as Project Gunrunner, which had previously come under fire from the Inspector General for failing to net “higher-level traffickers, smugglers, and the ultimate recipients of the trafficked guns.” Instead of going after the straw purchasers during Fast and Furious, ATF investigators allegedly made an effort to find the kingpins of the operation and deal a bigger blow to the trafficking network. But in doing so, agents lost track of many of the weapons, allowing them to flow into the hands of criminals on both sides of the border. One of the weapons connected to the investigation was found at the scene of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry’s murder in December 2010.
As a result of the report, former acting ATF Director Ken Melson resigned from his latest position as an advisor on forensic science issues at the Justice Department. Likewise, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jason Weinstein also resigned despite strongly disagreeing with the report’s conclusions.
The National Rifle Association and a number of Republican members of Congress have floated a bizzarre and far-fetched conspiracy theory that the Obama administration purposefully allowed weapons to “walk” to Mexico in an effort to boost the number of U.S. weapons found in the country and increase political support for gun control. Not surprisingly, the Inspector General found no evidence that ATF’s Phoenix office initiated Fast and Furious to obtain legislation requiring gun dealers to report bulk rifle sales, as they already do with handguns.
The report also found high-ranking DOJ officials did not purposefully provide false information in a Feb. 4, 2011 letter to Congress that responded to questions about the operation. The report found that Burke as well as then-Acting ATF Director Ken Melson and ATF Deputy Director Billy Hoover provided the information the officials relied on and “failed to exercise appropriate oversight of the investigation, and to some extent were themselves receiving incorrect or incomplete information from their subordinates about it.”
In comments aimed at Issa and other House Republicans, Holder said it was “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.”
Issa, for his part, said the report “confirms findings by Congress’ investigation of a near total disregard for public safety in Operation Fast and Furious” and called on President Obama to “step in and provide accountability for officials at both the Department of Justice and ATF who failed to do their jobs.”
While the House of Representatives voted in June to find Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for purportedly failing to turn over documents subpoenaed by the Oversight Committee, the report finds that DOJ “appropriately refused to make any substantive comments about the investigation in light of the additional information it had learned and its referral of the matter to the OIG in February.” President Obama’s White House declared the documents sought by the Committee — which were generated after Congress began asking questions about the ATF operation in February 2011 — were protected by executive privilege.