In response to the report, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has painted himself as a victim and contended that he was unfairly accused of participating in a cover-up by Congressional Republicans. But he is the head of the department where the bungling occurred – the fact that he was unaware of what transpired in his own department should not win him any victimization points.
The true victims here are the Mexican citizens who were killed with American guns – along with Michigan native and U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
The ATF is the department’s agency policing illegal gun-running. But its investigation of illegal sales of guns to Mexican drug gangsters — sometimes through straw buyers — backfired when two of the weapons involved in the scheme showed up at the Arizona murder scene of Terry, a Flat Rock High School grad and former officer in the Ecorse and Flat Rock police departments.
The ATF’s mistakes are now well-known — thanks to a congressional investigation headed by two Republicans, Rep. Darryl Issa of California and Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa.
More than a year ago, the pair issued a report calling the death of Agent Terry a “preventable tragedy.” In the course of their investigation, the U.S. House sought documents from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. When he declined to deliver them, Holder was held in the contempt by the House.
The inspector general’s report clears Holder of advance knowledge of the investigation, saying he was unaware of the plan by the Arizona division of ATF and the Arizona U.S. attorneys office to deliberately allow illegally sold weapons to make their way into Mexico in the hope of making a large conspiracy case about the gun-running.
It has harsh things to say about a number of his top aides and assistants, as well as the leadership of the ATF both in Washington and Arizona. It is also highly critical of the former U.S. attorney for Arizona.
And it kicks around a number of street-level agents for mistakes in judgment.
Ultimately, however, the blame should fall on the leadership of the ATF and top officials of the Justice Department. Unlike the agents, they were not working on the ground level where they stood a decent chance – like all police officers, whether local or federal — of being shot and killed in the line of duty.
The inspector general’s investigation concludes that Operation Fast and Furious was the product 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 agency, the investigators conclude, simply failed to accurately gauge the risk to public safety of citizens both in the United States and Mexico of letting a large number of semi-automatic weapons flow south of the border. The ATF agents in Arizona did not have enough manpower to adequately keep track of the weapons on their own and did not cooperate enough with other agencies, such Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and the Drug Enforcement Agency, who had information and manpower that would have been helpful.
Senior officials of the Department of Justice, including Gary Grindler, a former acting deputy attorney general, assistant attorney general Lanny Breuer, and former deputy assistant Jason Weinstein – among others – were mentioned for failing to appropriately supervise the ATF’s operation or failing to keep their superiors apprised of the risks involved.
Weinstein resigned last week when the report was released. Kenneth Melman, the former acting director of the ATF, chose to retire on the report’s release.
The inspector general’s report noted that a similar, smaller version of the operation, called Wide Receiver, was run out of the Tucson office of the ATF during the Bush administration — with unimpressive results. The inspector general’s report said some career officials at Justice and the ATF should have known that the larger, repeat operation would have an even worse outcome.
Part of the mismanagement at Justice included initially inaccurate or misleading responses to questions from congressional investigators, the report concluds.
The report shows that Issa and Grassley were on to something and were right to persist in asking tough questions.
(Jeffrey Hadden is deputy editor of The Detroit News editorial page and a columnist for The Michigan View. Originally posted on The Michigan View.)