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Fast and Furious: why inspector 'struggled to understand' what he found (+video)

The inspector general who investigated the Fast and Furious 'gunwalking' scandal absolved Attorney General Eric Holder, and Republicans agreed. But he was 'troubled' by what he found. 

By Staff writer / September 20, 2012

Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department's inspector general, arrives to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in Washington Thursday, a day after he faulted the department for disregard of public safety in Operation Fast and Furious. The report did not find direct fault with Attorney General Eric Holder.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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The US inspector general assigned to get to the bottom of the Fast and Furious “gunwalking” fiasco on Thursday debunked the notion that Attorney General Eric Holder knew about the program – or that it was a White House conspiracy to push for tougher gun laws.

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A Republican House committee chairman says a watchdog report on a bungled gun-trafficking probe in Arizona is a step toward restoring public faith in the Justice Department.

But he did tell Congress that he was amazed how such a large project could be run with the assistance of the Department of Justice without the attorney general knowing about it. “We struggled to understand how an operation of this size and importance, with this potential impact on the country, could not have been briefed up to the attorney general,” Michael Horowitz said.

Republicans suggested that the report – together with a new willingness by Mr. Holder to share documents – should go a long way toward resolving a potentially drawn-out legal affair over the House's decision to hold Holder in contempt on civil and criminal charges in June. But Horowitz's investigation continues, and he told the House Oversight and Reform Committee Tuesday that he remains “troubled” by what he found inside key parts of the Justice Department.

He said the main fault lay in “tactical and strategic” decisions made by agents on the ground, but he was also concerned by:

  • The process by which deputy assistant attorney generals review wiretap affidavits.
  • The quality and thoroughness of communication inside the agency.
  • Evidence of retaliation against whistleblowers who revealed the government’s role in a segment of the borderland gun trade.
  • A pattern of spinning news as evidenced by interagency “emails that were more concerned about what the public’s reaction would be after learning about gunwalking.”

Begun in October 2009, Operation Fast and Furious was an expansion of a similar program run during the Bush administration three years earlier. The idea was to target high-ranking cartel members by allowing known straw purchasers to cross the border into Mexico and deliver the weapons. It allowed over 2,000 mostly AK-47s, worth $1.5 million, to “walk” without interdiction into Mexico. Only about 100 guns were recovered before crossing the border.

The operation did lead to indictments against 40 alleged gun-runners and criminals, but the guns run through Fast and Furious have been found at dozens of Mexican murder scenes as well as near where Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was gunned down by bandits in December 2010.

In February 2011, a letter signed off on – but apparently never actually read – by Justice Department Criminal Division chief Lanny Breuer claimed that the US had never let guns “walk” across the border. Mr. Breuer reports directly to Holder. Ten months later, Holder was forced to retract that letter after it became clear that US agents had done exactly that – on a huge scale.

On Thursday, Horowitz pointed to concerns throughout the Justice Department, especially at the US attorney's office in Phoenix and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

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