WASHINGTON – Members of a House committee called for more accountability from Justice Department officials Thursday, even as they praised an internal investigation of two botched “gun-walking” operations run by department agencies.
Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that Operation Fast and Furious and Operation Wide Receiver were “seriously flawed” and lacked sufficient oversight from department officials.
His testimony echoed findings of the 512-page report he released Wednesday, which said the gun-trafficking operations put the public at risk but which placed much of the blame on federal law enforcement offices in southern Arizona.
Two officials left their jobs Wednesday in the wake of the report’s release. But committee members at Thursday’s hearing continued to fault Attorney General Eric Holder and they called for more resignations, particularly focusing on Lanny Breuer, the assistant attorney general for the criminal division.
Breuer has testified that he learned about Operation Wide Receiver in April 2010 but failed to draw a connection between it and Operation Fast and Furious for Holder.
“All these pieces are pointing to Breuer,” said Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Flagstaff, and a member of the committee. “He’s directly in the line of fire.”
Operation Wide Receiver, which ran from 2006 to 2007, and Operation Fast and Furious, which ran from 2009 to 2010, were gun-trafficking probes run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Arizona, with the blessing of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the state.
The operations were supposed to help catch high-level members of cartels by letting street-level straw buyers of guns “walk” away from a purchase, and then tracing the guns up the criminal ladder.
From the outset of Operation Fast and Furious, “both the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the agents at ATF decided they wanted to get to the top of the organization, and the way to do that was to take no action as to the straw purchasers,” Horowitz said Thursday. “It was a tactical decision that was made by both entities.”
Instead, however, agents lost track of many of the weapons, which later ended up in the hands of criminals on both sides of the border. More than $1.5 million went to buy more than 2,000 guns in Fast and Furious, for example. Two of those guns were later recovered at the scene of the Rio Rico, Ariz., shootout that killed Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in December 2010.
Rep. Ron Barber, D-Tucson, said he met this week with Terry’s family, who asked that Congress get answers to the questions they have been waiting for.
Barber, who is not a committee member but was allowed to participate in the hearing, said the family wants to know “what happened to Brian,” how the guns got to Mexico, who made the decisions, who should be held accountable and what consequences those people will face.
He praised the “objectivity” of the inspector general’s report, saying that, “Finally, the Terry family is beginning, but just beginning, to get the answers they deserve that are long overdue.”
Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and other Republican members of the committee continued to fault Holder, who was held in contempt of Congress this summer for what critics called a lack of transparency in the investigation.
Members also lobbed sharp criticism at ATF Phoenix and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona.
While Horowitz’s report put much of the blame on those offices, he said Thursday that his investigation did not find any overt cover up of the operations.
Horowitz’s investigation took more than a year and included more than 100,000 documents and interviews with more than 130 witnesses. The Justice Department sent 300 pages of additional documents to Congress before Thursday’s hearing, but committee members still want thousands more.
Horowitz said his office has asked Holder to report back in 90 days with a timeline and for further review.
“Our goal is to follow up and make sure things happen,” Horowitz said.
After the hearing, Gosar said one thing that needs to happen is the resignation of Breuer, who Gosar said violated his oath of office.
“He has been implicated over and over again,” Gosar said of Breuer. “No matter how you slice and dice it, he has to go.”