The shooting death of US border patrol agent Brian Terry last December, which shined a light on a covert government "gun-walking" project called "Fast and Furious," was regrettable but cannot be tied definitively to wrongdoing by the Obama administration, Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday.
"I regret what happened to [agent] Brian Terry, and I can only imagine the pain that his family has to deal with," Mr. Holder testified, when asked by Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas whether he wanted to apologize to Mr. Terry's family. "But it's not fair to say that the mistakes in Fast and Furious led directly to the death of Brian Terry."
Begun in 2009, Fast and Furious was an attempt to track guns purchased in the US by straw buyers into Mexico and the hands of the drug lords. The hope was that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (AFT) would be able to build cases against cartel kingpins, instead of nabbing just low-level couriers. At the time, the US was under pressure to stanch gun-trafficking that many believed to be fueling violence gripping Mexico.
The problem is that ATF lost at least 2,000 guns before Fast and Furious was shut down last year. Many missing guns have since been linked to hundreds of crime scenes, dozens of civilian deaths in Mexico, and the deaths of Terry and special agent Jaime Zapata, with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who was killed in a roadside raid outside Mexico City in February. Fast and Furious guns have been linked to crime scenes where both men died, and their families are demanding answers from the Obama administration about who knew what and when.
Meanwhile, Mexico is threatening to extradite US officials who approved the program, straining relations between the two nations.
Tuesday's hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee was the 17th congressional inquiry related to Fast and Furious. Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa and Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California, the primary inquisitors, say the Justice Department has tried to smear whistleblowers and mislead Congress as oversight committees try to pinpoint who is accountable for Fast and Furious mistakes.
Claiming deception, Republicans cite a Feb. 4 letter from Holder's office that stated, incorrectly, that ATF agents "used every effort" to interdict guns before they "walked" into Mexico. Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, whose office signed off on wiretaps for the operation, said last week he "regretted" not informing Holder sooner about the operation, though he said he was not involved in writing the Feb. 4 letter. Holder said Tuesday that the letter contained "inaccurate information" from sources inside the government, and that his staff used that information "in good faith."
With 34 Republican lawmakers calling for his resignation and Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas calling for a special prosecutor, Holder made his strongest condemnation yet of Fast and Furious.
"Any instance of gun-walking is simply unacceptable, and, regrettably, this tactic was used in Fast and Furious to combat gun violence," Holder said. "This operation was flawed in its concept and flawed in its execution, and we unfortunately will feel the effects for years to come as guns that were lost will continue to show up at crime scenes. This should not have happened and it must never happen again."
Holder also argued that the focus on the botched operation has blurred a larger issue: that "the US is losing the battle against gun trafficking," partially because Congress won't give ATF more financial resources and statutory power (i.e., new laws to restrict gun access) to combat drug traffickers.
He also decried "gotcha games" and "overheated rhetoric" by lawmakers, insisting that Fast and Furious was "the flawed response to and not the cause of illegal arms going from the US into Mexico."
"Of 94,000 guns that have been recovered and traced in Mexico, 64,000 of those guns were sourced to the United States of America," Holder said. "The mistakes of Operation Fast and Furious, serious though they were, should not deter or distract us from the mission to disrupt the dangerous flow of arms across the southwest border."
House Republicans have already voted to defund a post-Fast and Furious directive that requires gun shops along the border to notify ATF whenever anybody buys two or more assault rifles. Holder says that rule is an extension of one that already applies to handguns.
"The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter how many laws we pass if those responsible for enforcing those [laws] refuse to do their duty, as was the case with Fast and Furious," said Senator Grassley at the hearing.
Fast and Furious was partially based on a Bush administration program from 2006, and Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York asked Holder for more information about which Bush administration officials knew about Operation Wide Receiver, as it was called.
"What has been missing in the House investigation is that this didn't start with the Obama administration," Senator Schumer said, quoting a Bush administration memo about Operation Wide Receiver that noted that guns would be allowed to walk "without any further ability by the government to control their movement or future use." Holder acknowledged that Wide Receiver was coordinated with the Mexican government, while Fast and Furious was not.
Holder said he is awaiting a report from the Justice Department's inspector general before deciding whom to discipline for the Fast and Furious fiasco. So far, several people involved with the program have been reassigned, and the ATF's acting director, Ken Melson, has resigned.
Holder told senators he bears no direct blame, because he didn't learn of the "tactics" behind Fast and Furious until after Terry's death.
"I have the ultimate responsibility, but I can't be expected to know the details of every operation ongoing in the Justice Department," Holder said. "I did not know about Fast and Furious until, I guess, well, until it became public."