A controversial Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms gun trafficking investigation in Arizona was “flawed,” Attorney General Eric Holder said today, distancing the role of top Justice Department management from approval of the operation.
The gun scandal, which has become a full-blown political headache for the Justice Department, has resulted in top management changes at the ATF, with the acting director being replaced and the U.S. attorney in Arizona resigning last week.
During a news conference today, Holder addressed the botched gun-trafficking investigation, dubbed Operation “Fast and Furious,” that resulted in about 2,000 firearms flowing into Mexico, some even making their way to drug cartel members. The operation took a tragic toll when two weapons found on the scene where Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was murdered were linked to the ATF program. Guns from the program have also been traced to a series of crimes in Arizona.
Citing an independent review by the Justice Department Inspector General, Holder said, “We’ll certainly see, I think, at the end of that exactly who was involved, exactly who made the decisions in what was clearly, I think, a flawed enforcement effort. But the notion that somehow or other that this thing reaches into the upper levels of the Justice Department is something that at this point I don’t think is supported by the facts. And I think as we examine and as all the facts are in fact revealed, we’ll see that that is not the case.”
Last week, the shakeup at ATF resulted in the former acting director, Ken Melson, being replaced by the U.S. attorney for Minnesota, Todd Jones. On the same day Melson was removed from ATF, Dennis Burke, the U.S. attorney in Arizona, resigned. Rather than being fired, Melson was moved to a post at the Justice Department working as a senior adviser on forensic issues.
Holder said today at the news conference, “The change was made to — with the best interests of ATF at heart. I made the determination that a leadership change was appropriate in order to allow the men and women at ATF to focus on their critical public safety mission and to make sure that we had the leadership in place that would be helpful in that regard.”
Under “Fast and Furious,” ATF agents recorded and tracked straw purchases of weapons and allowed the guns to come across the U.S. border into Mexico in an effort to locate major weapons traffickers, rather than catching the low-level buyers. A congressional investigation into the program has revealed numerous shortcomings and poor oversight of the program, which was overseen by the ATF field office in Phoenix and the U.S. attorney’s office in Arizona.
Holder today said the Justice Department has been forthcoming with the congressional investigation. “We have made people available for interviews. We have turned over documents. We have conducted briefings. And our hope is that we will get to the conclusion of this investigation and the congressional effort as well relatively soon, so that we can finally say with some purpose and with some degree of certainty, and without any kind of political considerations, exactly what happened and who made the calls.”
Asserting that he did not know the details of the operation, Holder said, “There are an awful lot of things that go on in the Justice Department. There are ‘Operation Fast and Furious’ — I’m sure there are Operation fill in the blank — going on right now that people here in the department are not aware of.”
Holder continued, “One of the things that I have tried to do as attorney general is to place in the field the responsibility and the discretion for enforcement activities, setting broad parameters here in the department, with the expectation that those parameters would be followed and filled in by specific enforcement actions.”
While he was the acting director of ATF, Melson in July took the unusual step of hiring his own attorney and agreed to testify before the committee during the July 4 holiday weekend so he could provide his own testimony without other DOJ officials present. During his interview with the committee, Melson called DOJ’s response to the congressional inquiry “a disaster.”
Melson also alleged that DOJ headquarters was trying to deflect attention away from the political appointees, telling the oversight committee, “It was very frustrating to all of us, and it appears thoroughly to us that the department is really trying to figure out a way to push the information away from their political appointees at the department.”
Acknowledging that the ongoing investigations into the ATF program have become a political issue for the Justice Department, Holder said, “I think certain members of Congress would like to see, the notion that somehow or other high-level people in the department were involved. As I said, I don’t think that is going to be shown to be the case. Which doesn’t mean that the mistakes were not serious. I took very seriously the allegations that were raised and asked the inspector general to conduct an investigation.”
“My hope would be that Congress will conduct an investigation that is factually based and not mired with politics,” Holder said.