The head of the U.S. Justice Department's criminal division today expressed regret in not informing senior leaders about controversial gun trafficking tactics that would come under intense scrutiny this year.
Lanny Breuer, the Justice official, testifying at the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on crime and terrorism, said he learned in April 2010 about a federal gun sting in the Bush administration dubbed Operation Wide Receiver.
Breuer said today on Capitol Hill he didn't immediately recognize the similarities between Wide Receiver and the more recent gun sting, called Operation Fast and Furious, which began under the Obama administration.
The earlier gun probe, like Fast and Furious, allowed firearms purchased in the United States to flow into Mexico. In a statement issued last night, Breuer called the “gun walking” tactics “unacceptable and misguided.”
Breuer said on the Hill today that he learned about Operation Wide Receiver in April 2010 but did not alert senior DOJ leaders, including Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. The Wide Receiver sting occurred in 2006 and in 2007.
“I did not do that and I regret not doing that,” Breuer said. He said he thought at the time that dealing with the leadership at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) was reasonable and appropriate.
Addressing members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Breuer today said he should have drawn the connection between the two gun stings. He said he first personally expressed regret to Holder and then decided to speak publicly on the issue.
The ATF ran both gun programs. Two guns that straw buyers purchased in the United States ended up connected to the December 2010 murder of border patrol agent Brian Terry. Breuer called Terry’s death an “absolute horrible tragedy.”
Breuer said the ATF had the ability and legal authority to intercept weapons that straw buyers purchased at gun shops in the United States.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), a leading critic of the Fast and Furious program, confronted Breuer today with a letter that Grassley received this year. The Justice Department said in the letter that the ATF makes every effort to interdict weapons to staunch the flow of guns across the border.
Grassley called the letter “absolutely false” and asked Breuer whether he reviewed it before sending it to Capitol Hill. Breuer said he could not say with certainty whether he saw a draft of the letter.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said the “hunt for blame” in the Fast and Furious probe fails to address the overarching problem about the ease with which a person can purchase a gun in the country. “The question really comes to what do we do about this,” she said at the hearing today.
The ATF, Feinstein said, has been “beaten up at every turn of the road, and candidly it’s just not right. We have more guns in this country than we have people.”
Breuer said he decided to prosecute individuals in the Wide Receiver case even though it was an older matter that, as he described it, “languished.”
“We need to stop the flow” of guns into Mexico, Breuer said. “We have to stop these dealers from selling to criminals.”
The flap over the Justice Department’s handling of the Fast and Furious probe isn’t likely to die down. Holder is set to testify Nov. 8 at the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Holder recently defended earlier testimony on Fast Furious, saying he did not mislead members of Congress about when he first learned of the gun sting.