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Justice Department Reports on Faulty Gunwalking Operation Along U.S. Border

September 19, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
The Justice Department's internal watchdog released a report detailing the faulty execution and management failures of Operation Fast and Furious, a sting intended to curb illegal gun trafficking across the U.S.-Mexico border. Jeffrey Brown talks to The Wall Street Journal's Evan Perez.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Two top government officials have stepped down in the wake of an internal report that cites Justice Department failings in a probe of illegal gun sales in the Southwest.

It was the latest turn in a story that’s provoked a confrontation between congressional Republicans and Attorney General Eric Holder.

Jeffrey Brown reports.

JEFFREY BROWN: The report faulted the department for errors in judgment and management failures in Operation Fast and Furious. In the 471-page report, Inspector General Michael Horowitz referred 14 people, including senior official Lanny Breuer, for possible disciplinary action.

The report found no evidence that Attorney General Eric Holder was informed of the operation before the scandal broke. That happened after the shooting death of a U.S. Border Patrol agent in December 2010.

The report said lower-level officials should have briefed Holder on the situation earlier on.

For more on the findings, we’re joined by Evan Perez, who covers the Justice Department for The Wall Street Journal.

Evan, welcome.

Remind us first what this was all about.

EVAN PEREZ, The Wall Street Journal: Well, this was an operation that was conceived in Phoenix, in the ATF office in Phoenix.

And the plan was to basically go after big gun traffickers. They wanted to follow guns and see where it led and see if they could get to some major figures in gun trafficking.

It was in 2009 and 2010 and they allowed — essentially, agents allowed about 2,000 firearms to be trafficked to suspected smugglers, many of which were — have turned up in months since in crime scenes in Mexico and the United States.

There was very little effort to interdict the weapons to stop them from going across the border. And, of course, with the death of agent Brian Terry and other deaths, we see what the consequences are.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so the key questions became — and, of course, it became a political issue — is, who was responsible for this, how much were the White House and the attorney general’s office involved?

So what does the report tell us?

EVAN PEREZ: Well, the harshest criticism comes down for an official in the Criminal Division. His name is Jason Weinstein. He resigned yesterday under pressure.

And essentially he is called out for repeatedly having access to documents, wiretap applications, for instance he had — he read summaries of and perhaps didn’t read all of it and didn’t ask follow-up questions.

The inspector general says that, you know, if — he knew about an earlier operation called Wide Receiver in the Bush administration. Now, that was 2006, 2007, and it allowed about 400 firearms to be trafficked.

And Weinstein finds out about this in early 2009. And instead of making sure it didn’t happen again, it appears that Weinstein and Lanny Breuer, his boss, were more concerned — according to this report, were more concerned about public relations management, trying to make sure that they didn’t get bad press and the ATF didn’t get bad press over it.

JEFFREY BROWN: So some of those top officials are, as I said, referred for possible disciplinary action. But as to the attorney general himself, no evidence of any wrongdoing?

EVAN PEREZ: Right.

He doesn’t know about this until early 2011, when Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa in his office tells him about it, hands him a letter and says, I would like you to look into this.

He wasn’t aware that there were two firearms at the scene of the Brian Terry murder who — that were tied to this operation. And he apparently — the first thing he did was ask for an investigation by the inspector general, which is what has come forward now.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, is it therefore now up to Eric Holder as to what kind of disciplinary action is — is — or whether there is any against the people that were cited?

EVAN PEREZ: Well, he’s taken a couple of actions.

Weinstein’s gone. Ken Melson, the former head of the ATF, has retired. And I’m told that the ATF is now referring the report to all the other employees who were there and are seen as responsible.

He — I’m told by an official that he admonished Lanny Breuer for his failings here.

But what we expect now is that there’s going to be an internal process. Some of these people are covered by civil servant rules, and it takes some time to see who is going to get forced out or if any other punishments will come forward.

JEFFREY BROWN: I don’t know how much you have been able to talk to people at Justice today, but are they taking this as a damning report or as in some sense clearing — certainly clearing…

EVAN PEREZ: Well, both.

On one hand, it’s a really damning report. It really tells you that there are a lot of signs that people had that they could have stopped this, that they could have prevented hundreds of these weapons from going across the border.

At the same time, there’s been a cloud that’s hung over the department with the attorney general under fire. And this clears him of any responsibility necessarily of the actions directly here.

But, at the same time, I think there’s no celebration over the fact that this clearly shows there were some terrible management failures, both at the Justice Department, at ATF. They failed to manage the situation and failed to prevent, in the case of Brian Terry, death.

JEFFREY BROWN: So — and as to, for example, Congressman Darrell Issa, who is one of the people pushing the administration very hard on this and Attorney General Eric Holder, I saw a statement today where he says the — today’s report confirms findings of his congressional investigation.

So the political to-ing and fro-ing would continue here. It doesn’t sound like Republicans would be satisfied.

EVAN PEREZ: Right.

They have a lawsuit going. They’re trying to get documents from the Justice Department and from the White House, which is protected by executive privilege. The president has declared that in June. And so they’re going to continue fighting over those.

Some of those documents, by the way, were available to the inspector general. So it’s interesting that he had access to documents that Congress has not had. There’s still going to be some — we expect some litigation over that.

And there’s some questions. Obviously, the Republicans are going to point out that there are a couple of White House officials who were not allowed to be interviewed by the inspector general.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, of course, all of that led to the contempt charge against the attorney general.

EVAN PEREZ: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: But there’s no signs that the administration is changing on — in terms of the documents?

EVAN PEREZ: That’s correct. That’s correct.

I think that’s something that is going to be worked out in the next few months.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Evan Perez of The Wall Street Journal, thanks so much.

EVAN PEREZ: Thank you.