Holder: Fast and Furious ‘should never have happened’
Attorney general says gun-walking is 'unacceptable'
WASHINGTON — Attorney General Eric Holder told a Senate committee Tuesday that a gun–trafficking investigation that let thousands of guns “walk” into the hands of criminals should have “never happened.”
“I want to be clear: Any instance of so–called gun walking is unacceptable,” Holder in a statement at the beginning of what would become a three–hour grilling by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The wide–ranging hearing touched on a number of topics, but the focus was Operation Fast and Furious, a controversial Phoenix–based investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Under the operation, started in late 2009, ATF agents let illegal gun–buyers go in hopes of tracing the guns to larger gun–trafficking rings. Many weapons – about 2,000 guns and 10,000 or more rounds of ammunition “walked” out of agents’ sight –are believed to have wound up in the hands of criminals on both sides of the border.
Holder said that the operation was “flawed in its concept as well as its execution.”
But he still defended his department, calling Fast and Furious a “flawed response to, not the cause of” the flow of illegal guns from the U.S. into Mexico.
Committee Republicans demanded to know who was responsible for the operation and who Holder planned to hold accountable.
Holder noted that in August the Justice Department reassigned acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson, the same day that U.S. Attorney for Arizona Dennis Burke resigned. He declined to comment further, noting that his department has mounted an internal investigation of the botched operation.
Senators also wanted to know how much Holder knew, and they grilled him over a February letter denying that the department allowed guns to walk. Holder conceded that the letter was wrong.
“The letter could have been better crafted,” Holder said. “The information that is contained in that Feb. 4 letter to you, was not in fact accurate, and I regret that.”
Sen. Charles Grassley, R–Iowa, demanded to know why Holder had given the committee the misleading letter back in February.
Grassley later called it “unconscionable” that the erroneous letter would be left to stand for nine months. He said during the hearing that Holder has refused to provide drafts of the Feb. 4 letter or emails relating to the drafts, even after being subpoenaed by a House committee that is also investigating the operation.
Holder said he would work with lawmakers to provide all of the relevant information but stopped short of promising full release of the documents, saying he will “act in a way that is consistent with other attorneys general.”
“I will act in a manner that is consistent with the history and the tradition of the department,” Holder said.
The Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee have held several hearings into Operation Fast and Furious this year.
Several ATF agents have testified that they complained to supervisors about the operation but said their concerns were brushed off.
Previous testimony also indicated that many of the guns that “walked” in the operation found their way across the border and into the hands of drug cartels. Many of the weapons were later recovered at violent crime scenes in the U.S. and Mexico, including one gun found at the scene of the December shootout that killed Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
While Holder said Tuesday that he feels for the Terry family, “It is not fair, however, to assume that the mistake that happened in Fast and Furious directly lead to the death of Agent Terry.”
Sen. John Cornyn, R–Texas, expressed concerns for his own state when he said that Fast and Furious guns have been found at 11 violent crime scenes in Mexico and the U.S. and that guns are still unaccounted for.
“Unfortunately, we will feel its effect for years to come as guns that were lost during this operation continue to show up at crime scenes both here and in Mexico,” Holder said.