Right Opinion

Two Justice Department Officials Leave Over Damning Fast & Furious Report

But report doesn't go far enough.

Arnold Ahlert · Sep. 21, 2012

The Fast and Furious gun-running scandal reached another milestone Wednesday in the form of a scathing report released by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General. 14 people, including Criminal Division head Lanny Breuer, “bore a share of responsibility for ATF’s knowing failure in both these operations to interdict firearms illegally destined for Mexico, and for doing so without adequately taking into account the danger to public safety that flowed from this risky strategy,” the report states. The report recommended the DOJ consider disciplinary action against these men. Within minutes of its release, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jason Weinstein had resigned and former ATF chief Kenneth Melson was retiring. The report further notes that there is “no evidence that…(Attorney General Eric) Holder was informed about Operation Fast and Furious, or learned about the tactics employed by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in the investigation” prior to the congressional inquiries directed at him 2011.

Yet as details emerge, it remains far from clear how accurate and/or comprehensive the report is. While IG Michael E. Horowitz focused his blame on what he characterized as a dysfunctional and poorly supervised group of Arizona-based federal ATF prosecutors and agents plagued by “a series of misguided strategies, tactics, errors in judgment and management failures,” his report also noted that a member of the White House National Security staff refused to be interviewed, and that the White House itself would not produce internal documents for the investigation.

“We also sought to interview Kevin O'Reilly, an official with the White House National Security Staff, about communications he had in 2010 with Special Agent in Charge William Newell that included information about Operation Fast and Furious,” says the report. “O'Reilly declined through his personal counsel our request for an interview." Wiliam Newell was the Special Agent in Charge of ATF’s Phoenix Field Division, and the report reveals that he had communications with O'Reilly in 2010 that included information on Fast and Furious.

Efforts to get information from the White House were equally unsuccessful. "We requested from the White House any communications concerning Operation Fast and Furious during the relevant time period that were sent to or received from (a) certain ATF employees, including Special Agent in Charge Newell, and (b) certain members of the White House National Security Staff, including Kevin O'Reilly, the report states. "In response to our request, the White House informed us that the only responsive communications it had with the ATF employees were those between Newell and O'Reilly. The White House indicated that it previously produced those communications to Congress in response to a similar request, and the White House provided us with a copy of those materials.”

Yet that’s as far as it went. “The White House did not produce to us any internal White House communications, noting that ‘the White House is beyond the purview of the Inspector General’s Office, which has jurisdiction over Department of Justice programs and personnel,’” said the report.

In the context of what happened such stonewalling is remarkable. More than 2,000 guns were were allowed to be bought by suspected straw purchasers under surveillance by the ATF. Many of those weapons ended up in the hands of criminals working for Mexican drug cartels, even as federal agents lost track of their whereabouts. As a result, at least one American, Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, and somewhere between 200 and 300 Mexican nationals were murdered.

At the DOJ, the buck apparently stops with Deputy AG Weinstein, who the report contends was the highest-ranking official in the Department with the ability to stop the program. It claims he knew about Fast and Furious as early as 2010, when he spoke with ATF official Bill McMahon about bringing indictments for a Bush-era gun-running program called Wide Receiver. Weinstein was reportedly learned about Fast and Furious during that meeting, even as he was reportedly assured no gun-running was taking place in the new program. Months later, he helped move wiretap applications along to facilitate Fast and Furious, but claims he only read the cover-sheet of those applications. He told Fox News that while he takes issue with the report’s conclusions about him, he is resigning so as to not “distract” from the department’s work.

With respect to Fast and Furious other highlights from the report paint a picture of bureaucratic ineptitude and indifference at both the DOJ and the ATF. ATF officials in Phoenix “provided demonstrably inaccurate and conflicting information” to the DOJ as they drafted – and later retracted a – response to questions from Sen. Charles Grassley about the probe. Yet the report also notes that “the Department is ultimately responsible for representations that it makes to Congress.”  Then-ATF chief Melson “was not well served” by his subordinates, but "should have asked basic questions about the investigation, including how public safety was being protected.“ Criminal Division chief Lanny Breuer ostensibly failed to warn Holder or his deputy about concerns about Operation Wide Receiver, when he learned about it in 2010. Dennis Burke, the U.S. for the District of Arizona, "failed to exercise responsible oversight and failed to provide the leadership and judgment required of a United States attorney.” Burke resigned in 2011, and later admitted leaking a memo designed to smear ATF agent, John Dodson, the Fast and Furious whistleblower.

And then there is Attorney General Eric Holder. The report found that Holder was uninformed regarding ATF operation until 2011, after Terry was killed. Many media outlets were quick point out that Holder had been "exonerated" as a result. Holder was quick about tooting his own horn as well. “It is unfortunate that some were so quick to make baseless accusations before they possessed the facts about these operations – accusations that turned out to be without foundation and that have caused a great deal of unnecessary harm and confusion,” Holder said in response. “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.”

The investigation still isn’t completed. This is a report compiled by the Inspector General “who is appointed by the president subject to Senate confirmation, (and) reports to the Attorney General and Congress.” In this case that means he has been tasked with investigating member of his own department, including the same boss to whom he reports. Furthermore, the investigation to which Holder refers is one he stonewalled to the point where he earned a contempt of Congress citation as a result. As for Holder being out of the loop, the report alludes the implausibility of that idea:

“We found it troubling that a case of this magnitude and that affected Mexico so significantly was not directly briefed to the Attorney General. We would usually expect such information to come to the Attorney General through the Office of the Deputy Attorney General … [Holder] was not told in December 2010 about the connection between the firearms found at the scene of the shooting and Operation Fast and Furious. Both Acting Deputy Attorney General Grindler and Counsel to the Attorney General and Deputy Chief of Staff Wilkinson were aware of this significant and troubling information by December 17, 2010, but did not believe the information was sufficiently important to alert the Attorney General about it or to make any further inquiry regarding this development.”

Yet the assault of credibility goes further. "As we describe below, we identified information regarding Operation Fast and Furious that reached the Office of the Attorney General in 2010 but not Attorney General Holder himself,“ says the report. "We found that although [Holder’s then deputy-chief-of-staff Monty] Wilkinson forwarded to Holder during the afternoon of December 15 three emails from the US Attorney’s Office providing further details about the shooting (of Border Agent Brian Terry) and law enforcement efforts to find and arrest the suspects, he did not notify the Attorney General of the revelation that two weapons found at the murder scene were linked to a suspect in an ATF firearms trafficking investigation.”

At best, the idea that communications retarding Fast and Furious reached Holder’s – office but not Holder himself – suggests he takes an approach to his job bordering on incompetency. At worst, it suggests the DOJ employees are willing to erect a facade of  "plausible deniability" around their boss. The latter scenario is buttressed by the reality that President Obama invoked executive privilege to prevent the House Oversight Committee from obtaining documents they considered critical to the investigation.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), who along with Rep. Darryl Issa (R-CA) is leading the ongoing Congressional inquiry into the scandal, minced no words regarding the president’s action. While noting that "Operation Fast and Furious was the height of irresponsibility on the part of a number of people from the ATF Phoenix field office all the way up to the Justice Department headquarters,“ he characterized Obama’s invocation of executive privilege as "merely thumbing his nose at Congress…on the eve of the contempt vote against Attorney General Holder for withholding the documents.” Regarding the report, Grassley noted that he is “glad that the OIG is joining me and Chairman Issa in urging the Justice Department to move to unseal the wiretap applications so that the American people can read them and make up their own minds.”

Yet it was Sen. Jon Cornyn (R-TX) who cut to the heart of the matter. "Today’s report contains page after page of redacted information and does not reflect well on an administration that pledged to be the most transparent in US history,“ he contended. "I ask the attorney general to set aside his political allegiances and answer this simple question: don’t you think the Terry family and the American people deserves answers?”

It is hard to imagine the death of Terry, as well as hundreds of innocent Mexicans wouldn’t elicit and all-out, let-the-chip-fall-where-the-may effort to get to the bottom of this debacle. Yet judging by Holder’s self-serving response to the report, his continuing refusal to turn over critical documents, and the lapdog media’s effort to claim he was exonerated, the answer to Sen. Grassley’s question is a resounding no. The verdict on the IG’s report? Half a report is better than nothing. The American public and Brian Terry’s family await the other half.

Arnold Ahlert is a columnist for FrontPage Magazine.