* Department's Inspector General finds no cover-up
* Two senior Justice officials leave after report issued
By David Ingram
WASHINGTON, Sept 19 The U.S. Justice
Department's internal watchdog faulted 14 federal employees on
Wednesday for the botched anti-gun-trafficking effort known as
"Operation Fast and Furious," prompting two senior officials to
leave the government but clearing Attorney General Eric Holder
of any wrongdoing.
Congressional Republicans during a series of hearings
investigating the failed operation sharply criticized Holder,
the nation's top law-enforcement official appointed by President
Barack Obama, during this year's presidential campaign. One U.S.
agent was killed in Arizona, potentially in connection with the
The new report from the department's Inspector General found
screw-ups of "systemic" scope that risked public safety but
found no cover-up, as charged by Republicans.
That, and a statement supportive of the report from Holder's
main Republican accuser, Representative Darrell Issa, seems
likely to defuse what could have been a politically explosive
conclusion to the probe.
Two senior department officials left the government as the
report was made public. Kenneth Melson, former head of the U.S.
agency that enforces gun laws, retired, while Jason Weinstein,
responsible for oversight of many criminal-related matters,
The highest official to be criticized, Lanny Breuer, the
assistant attorney general in charge of criminal prosecutions,
has been "admonished," said a department official.
The book-length, 471-page report is the most in-depth look
yet at Operation Fast and Furious. It follows a 19-month review
by the department watchdog that had access to non-public
Fast and Furious began in 2009 as an effort to stop the flow
of firearms from Arizona to Mexican drug cartels. As U.S. agents
tried to build an expansive case, they did not pursue low-level
gun buyers who bought about 2,000 potentially illegal firearms
and trafficked many of them across the border.
The report said that Melson and Weinstein failed to ask
detailed questions about the tactics in Fast and Furious,
allowing the operation to go on in 2010 when they could have
stopped it, the report said.
Melson said in a statement that he disagrees with parts of
the report that he called "speculative assumptions, conclusions
and characterizations," but he added, "I was ultimately
responsible for the actions of each employee."
Melson was pushed out in August 2011 as acting director of
the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
(ATF) and recently worked on forensic policy for the department.
Weinstein wrote in a blistering resignation letter that the
inspector general's conclusion about him is "completely false."
"For me to have done this would have run counter to the
entire body of work I compiled during the past 15 years,"
Weinstein wrote, adding that he was singled out for blame
because of politicized congressional hearings.
Weinstein's boss, Breuer, was among those the inspector
general recommends for potential internal discipline.
Breuer should have alerted his superiors, including Holder,
in 2010 to flaws in a program similar to Fast and Furious that
was started during George W. Bush's presidency. Breuer said in a
congressional hearing in 2011 that not doing so "was a mistake"
and that he had regrets.
The 12 officials, including Gary Grindler, a former deputy
attorney general who is now Holder's chief of staff, could face
a wide range of discipline or none at all, depending on the
judgment of Justice Department and ATF authorities.
But at Justice headquarters at least, no further personnel
shake-ups are expected, one department official said.
VINDICATION FOR HOLDER
Holder pointed to the inspector general's report, which he
requested in February 2011, as vindication that he knew nothing
of the operation's tactics and did not try to cover them up.
"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," he said in a statement.
He praised the newly departed officials, saying Weinstein
had "unwavering" commitment to the Justice Department.
In a rare show of agreement, Issa, the Republican who has
led a congressional inquiry into Fast and Furious, also found
reason to praise the inspector general's report. Issa said it
confirms the operation's "near total disregard for public
"It's time for President Obama to step in and provide
accountability for officials at both the Department of Justice
and ATF who failed to do their jobs," Issa said in a statement.
Fast and Furious came to light after the December 2010
shooting death of a U.S. Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry. Two
guns that firearms agents attempted to track were found at the
scene of Terry's death in rural Arizona.
The operation raised the fury of U.S. gun-rights advocates,
who helped to drive attention in Congress and the media.