An internal Justice Department review released today criticizes senior DOJ officials for their roles in the failed Operation Fast and Furious gun-smuggling program, but clears Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. of personal knowledge about the two major accusations from congressional Republicans.
The 471-page report from the DOJ inspector general's office, released this afternoon, presents a comprehensive review of Operation Fast and Furious and will be the subject of a hearing Thursday before the House Oversight and Government Relations Committee, chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).
DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz will testify about the review, in which his office looked at more than 100,000 documents and interviewed more than 130 witnesses, including Holder, Deputy Attorney General James Cole and assistant attorneys general Lanny Breuer of the Criminal Division and Ronald Weich of the legislative affairs office.
Issa has pursued claims that Holder and top DOJ officials knew about flawed tactics used in the operation, and also misled Congress with a February 4, 2011, letter denying that assault weapons were knowingly allowed to be transported to Mexico.
"In the course of our review we identified individuals ranging from line agents and prosecutors in Phoenix and Tucson to senior ATF officials in Washington, D.C., who bore a share of responsibility for ATF's knowing failure in both these operations to interdict firearms illegally destined for Mexico, and for doing so without adequately taking into account the danger to public safety that flowed from this risky strategy," the report states. "We also found failures by Department officials related to these matters, including failing to respond accurately to a Congressional inquiry about them."
The inspector general's report recommends that DOJ review the conduct and performance of the personnel in the report "and determine whether discipline or other administrative action with regard to each of them is appropriate."
The report that found Holder got weekly reports that mentioned Operation Fast and Furious — but his top assistants never made him aware of the controversial tactics being used until February 2011, when Holder ordered the inspector general's office to investigate.
"We concluded that the Attorney General's Deputy Chief of Staff, the Acting Deputy Attorney General, and the leadership of the Criminal Division failed to alert the Attorney General to significant information about or flaws in those investigations," the report states.
The report also found that Holder "had no involvement in drafting or reviewing" the February 4 letter to Congress that denied that ATF "sanctioned" or otherwise knowingly allowed the sale of assault weapons to a straw purchaser who then transported them into Mexico. Holder decided to withdraw that letter in December 2011, after concluding that it contained inaccuracies.
Holder has answered questions about Operation Fast and Furious at least nine times during testimony on Capitol Hill. Republican lawmakers have called for his resignation. The House ultimately found Holder in contempt of Congress in June after he did not turn over some documents the oversight committee had subpoenaed in the investigation.
President Barack Obama claimed executive privilege over the documents, and that is now the subject of a civil lawsuit.
The release of the report allowed both political parties to draw their own conclusions. Issa said the report confirms findings by Congress' investigation that in the operation, there was a near total disregard for public safety.
"Contrary to the denials of the Attorney General and his political defenders in Congress, the investigation found that information in wiretap applications approved by senior Justice Department officials in Washington did contain red flags showing reckless tactics and faults Attorney General Eric Holder's inner circle for their conduct," Issa said in a statement.
"It's time for President Obama to step in and provide accountability for officials at both the Department of Justice and ATF who failed to do their jobs," Issa said. "Attorney General Holder has clearly known about these unacceptable failures yet has failed to take appropriate action for over a year and a half."
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, interpreted the report in a completely different way.
"The report released by the Inspector General today should finally put to rest the unfounded claims that these wrongheaded on-the-ground tactics were conceived and directed from the 'highest levels' of the Department of Justice," Leahy said. "It is what it always was, a badly conceived effort by law enforcement field agents to respond to difficult circumstances that went tragically wrong."
The report concluded that the ATF and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Arizona "share equal responsibility for the strategic and operational failures" in the Fast and Furious gun trafficking sting.
"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," the report said.
The report recommends greater DOJ involvement in and oversight over ATF operations and improved coordination among DOJ law enforcement components.
Holder today announced the immediate retirement of Kenneth Melson, the former acting director of the ATF. The attorney general also said he accepted the resignation of Jason Weinstein, a deputy assistant attorney general in the Criminal Division. Weinstein had been a career prosecutor for more than a decade. Holder said Weinstein "dedicated his career to fighting violent crime" and that "the American people are safer because of his work." Weinstein's career even included a stint in the inspector general's office from 1997 to 1999.
The attorney general's statement criticized—but not by name—people who assailed Holder's handling of the Fast and Furious probe.
"It is 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," Holder said. "I hope today's report acts as a reminder of the dangers of adopting as fact unsubstantiated conclusions before an investigation of the circumstances is completed."
Mike Scarcella contributed to this story.