Republicans, IG take Justice Dept. to task

WASHINGTON (AP) — House Republicans eagerly joined the Justice Department’s inspector general in taking the agency to task Thursday for its bungled gun-trafficking probe in Arizona that allowed hundreds of weapons to reach Mexican drug rings.

At a committee hearing, Democrats fought an uphill battle as the committee’s Republicans, led by its chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa of California, wrapped themselves in the findings of Inspector General Michael Horowitz about Operation Fast and Furious.

Horowitz faulted the Justice Department for misguided strategies, errors in judgment and management failures in a gun-tracking operation he said disregarded public safety.

“There needs to be supervision; there needs to be oversight,” and law enforcement operations like Operation Fast and Furious need to be referred from the start to “the highest levels” of the department, Horowitz testified. His report faulted mid-level and senior officials for not briefing Attorney General Eric Holder much earlier.

Issa declared that Horowitz’s 471-page report, released Wednesday, “is a huge step forward toward restoring the public faith in the Department of Justice.”

The report proves “to both sides of the aisle that you could” do the job of looking into the facts of Operation Fast and Furious, “and I want to personally thank you,” Issa told Horowitz.

The inspector general was walking a fine political line between vociferous Republican criticisms of the operation begun during the Obama administration and Democratic defenses of Holder.

“We found no evidence that the attorney general was aware” of Operation Fast and Furious or the much-disputed “gun-walking” tactic associated with it, Horowitz told Democratic delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia. Fast and Furious began in October 2009 and Horowitz said subordinates should have told Holder about it well before 2011.

President Barack Obama, in an appearance Thursday on Univision, a Spanish-language television network, also said the gun-trafficking probe in Arizona was “completely wrongheaded” but said he retains confidence in Holder.

“He has shown himself to be accountable” by taking action against those who directed the operation, Obama said.

Obama said ultimately he himself was responsible, but he noted Horowitz found “people (in the Justice Department) should have known in some cases even if they didn’t actually know” about the operation.

Another point on which Horowitz vindicated Democrats was that risky gun-walking experiments originated in the administration of Republican President George W. Bush when the department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Tucson, Ariz., launched Operation Wide Receiver. That operation in 2006-2007 resulted in ATF losing track of 400 guns.

Gun-walking was an experimental investigative tactic, barred under longstanding department policy. ATF agents in Arizona allowed suspected straw purchasers, believed to be working for Mexican drug gangs, to leave gun stores with weapons in order to track them and try to bring charges against gun-smuggling kingpins who long had eluded prosecution, but they lost track of most of the guns.

The experimental operations were a response to widespread criticisms of the agency’s anti-smuggling efforts. Because of thin ATF staffing and weak penalties, the traditional strategy of arresting suspected straw buyers as soon as possible had failed to stop the flow of tens of thousands of guns to Mexico — more than 68,000 in the past five years.

But outside scrutiny of the Arizona experiments soared after two of the 2,000 weapons thought to have been acquired at Phoenix-area gun stores by illicit buyers during the Fast and Furious investigation were recovered at the scene of a shootout that claimed the life of U.S. border agent Brian Terry. About 1,400 of the total have yet to be recovered.

Fast and Furious has produced charges against 20 gun traffickers, 14 of whom have pleaded guilty so far.

At Thursday’s hearing, Republican committee members and the inspector general agreed on a number of points. One of them: Issa has maintained for months that affidavits in still-sealed wiretap applications in Fast and Furious could have tipped off Justice Department lawyers that agents were using the gun-walking tactic. Horowitz agreed with Issa.

“You would read these ... affidavits and see many red flags, in our view,” Horowitz said. “We interviewed three of the five” lawyers who reviewed the 14 wiretap applications, and “all three indicated that they did not routinely read the affidavits when they came to them.”

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