Two top officials at the Department of Justice were ousted from their jobs today but Attorney General Eric Holder was ruled blameless by a damning report that uncovered a catalog or errors in judgement in the Fast and Furious gun-trafficking scandal.
Two senior officials left the department, one by resignation and one by retirement, upon release of the 471-page internal report.
Its author, Inspector General Michael Horowitz, also referred 14 people for possible department disciplinary action for their roles in Operation Fast and Furious and a separate, earlier probe known as Wide Receiver, undertaken during the George W Bush administration.
The high risk operation saw guns being allowed to be purchased by Mexican gangsters and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives agents were supposed to track them to higher level drug cartel members and catch the bigger fish red-handed.
But, it backfired and resulted in hundreds of weapons turning up at crime scenes in the U.S. and Mexico.
And in the worst failure U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, who was gunned down in December 2010 with two guns that agents had been trying to track.
Terry’s murder was the catalyst that began the internal probe into the gun operation after two of the 2,000 weapons thought to have been acquired by illicit buyers were found at the murder scene.
About 1,400 of the total are yet to be recovered.
No criminal charges were recommended in the report.
The documents did not criticise Holder, but said lower-level officials should have briefed him about the investigation much earlier.
Investigators found that Holder didn’t know anything about Fast and Furious until late January/early February and found no evidence that that the attorney general was told about the much-disputed ‘gun-walking’ tactic employed by the department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The inspector general found fault with the work of the senior ATF leadership, the ATF staff and U.S. attorney’s office in Phoenix and senior officials of Justice’s criminal division in Washington.
He also said that poor internal information-gathering and drafting at Justice and ATF caused the department to initially misinform Congress about Fast and Furious.
One of those criticized in the report, former ATF acting director Kenneth Melson, who headed that office during the Fast and Furious investigation, retired upon release of the report.
‘Melson made too many assumptions about the case,’ the report stated. ‘Melson should have asked basic questions about the investigation, including how public safety was being protected.’
Another of those criticized, Justice Department career attorney Jason Weinstein, resigned.
Weinstein was a deputy assistant attorney general in Justice’s criminal division in Washington.
‘Weinstein was 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 Operations Wide Receiver and Fast and Furious,’ the report said.
Weinstein’s lawyer, Michael Bromwich, called the report’s criticism ‘profoundly wrong’ and ‘deeply flawed.’
In Operation Fast and Furious and at least three earlier probes during the administration of George W. Bush, agents in Arizona employed a risky tactic called gun-walking – allowing low-level ‘straw’ buyers – believed to be working for notorious Mexican drug cartels – to leave with loads of weapons purchased at gun shops.
But 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.
The goal was to track the guns to major weapons traffickers and drug cartels in order to bring cases against kingpins who had long eluded prosecution under the former strategy of arresting low-level purchasers of guns who were suspected of buying them for others.
The report also said that poor internal information-gathering and drafting at the Justice Department and ATF caused the department to initially misinform Congress about Fast and Furious.
Rep Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and vocal critic of the operation, said: ‘The inspector general’s report confirms findings by Congress’ investigation of a near total disregard for public safety in Operation Fast and Furious.’
The report’s conclusion reads: ‘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.’
One of the five suspects in Terry’s murder was arrested two weeks ago.
Jesus Leonel Sanchez Meza, who was arrested on September 6 in Sonora state.
Another suspect is currently on trial, while three more – Jesus Rosario Favela-Astorga, 31, Ivan Soto-Barraza, 34, Heraclio Osorio-Arellanes, 34 – remain at large.