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Report: Fast & Furious, earlier probe lacked oversight, put public at risk

IG: ATF's Operations 'Fast and Furious' and 'Wide Receiver' mishandled

Government officials in Phoenix and Washington, D.C., mishandled two “gun-walking” operations in Arizona and put the public in serious risk in the process, according to an inspector general’s report released Wednesday.

Two government officials left their posts after the release of the 512-page report, which criticized the Justice Department, the U.S Attorney’s Office in Arizona and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives over Operation Fast and Furious and Operation Wide Receiver.

Attorney General Eric Holder said in a prepared statement that others may yet face personnel actions as a result of the report, which has been more than a year in the making.

Holder, who was held in contempt by the House in June, said the report reaffirms the fact that Justice Department leaders “did not attempt to cover up information or mislead Congress” about Operation Fast and Furious, which began in 2009. Operation Wide Receiver ran from 2006 to 2007, before Holder was in office.

“I hope today’s report acts as a reminder of the dangers of adopting as fact unsubstantiated conclusions before an investigation of the circumstances is completed,” Holder’s statement said.

But Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Flagstaff, said it is too early to exonerate Holder or his department. Gosar, who was still digesting the report Wednesday evening, noted that it said “the inner circle around the AG (attorney general) were responsible.”

“This happened underneath his watch. He should have known better,” Gosar said.

Operation Fast and Furious and Operation Wide Receiver were both gun-trafficking investigations run out of ATF offices in Southern Arizona. Under the investigation, agents did not stop illicit gun buyers at the point of sale, instead hoping to follow them up the chain of command to catch drug cartel leaders they believed were behind the purchases.

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While some arrests were ultimately made, hundreds of the guns that were allowed to “walk” have never been accounted for. In Operation Fast and Furious alone, the report said straw purchasers spent $1.5 million to acquire nearly 2,000 firearms, many of which ended up in the hands of criminals on both sides of the border.

The issue exploded after two Fast and Furious guns were found at the scene of a December 2010 shootout with Border Patrol agents near Rio Rico, about 18 miles north of the Mexican border. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in that incident.

Terry’s family was still reviewing the report Wednesday. But in a statement from Robert Heyer, a cousin who serves as chairman of the Brian Terry Foundation, he noted that the report points to the “serious, systemic failures of the Justice Department at all levels.”

“Questions and concerns should have been raised before the weapons purchased in this failed government sting wound up in the hands of drug dealers and killers,” the statement said.

Though the report found “serious failures” in supervision from ATF’s headquarters, it put much of the blame on the bureau’s Phoenix field division and on the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Arizona.

“Individuals at ATF and the U.S. Attorney’s Office responsible for Operation Fast and Furious failed to conduct the investigation with the urgency, oversight, and attention to public safety that was required by an investigation that involved such extraordinary and consequential firearms trafficking activity,” Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz said in the report.

In the wake of the report, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jason Weinstein resigned and Kenneth Melson, who was acting director of ATF during Operation Fast and Furious, “retired from the department, effective immediately,” Holder’s statement said. Melson had been moved out of the acting director’s job and in to the Office of Legal Policy last year.

Horowitz is scheduled to present his investigation Thursday to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which has been highly critical of Holder and the department over the incidents.

Gosar, who sits on that committee, said he wants to ask Horowitz how Arizona is going to deal with the fallout of the botched operations.

“We’re going to suffer the consequences for these guns showing up,” he said.

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Gosar said he wants answers for the Terry family and for the Mexicans who have been affected, and he believes that Holder and others who were responsible for the “ill-fated program” should be held accountable.

But he said the important thing is to make sure that checks and balances are put in place to prevent similar situations from happening in the future.

Interactive map: Firearm recoveries

This interactive map that shows how many firearms from the Fast and Furious operation have been recovered in U.S. cities and Mexican states.


TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Rebeckah Zemansky/Cronkite News Service

A lineup of Operation Fast and Furious weapons that were recovered in January 2011.