WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General Eric Holder says a flawed investigation of arms traffickers called Operation Fast and Furious never should have occurred and must never happen again.
On the eve of an appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee where he faces tough questioning by Republicans, the attorney general says the mistakes in Fast and Furious should not deter the government from disrupting the dangerous flow of firearms along the Southwest border.
The probe employed a now-controversial investigative tactic known as gun-walking. Several agents said they were ordered to let suspected straw buyers walk away from Phoenix-area gun shops with AK-47s and other weapons believed headed for Mexican drug cartels, rather than arrest and seize them there. The goal was to track the guns to trafficking ring leaders, who had long escaped prosecution, but agents lost track of some 1,400 of the more than 2,000 weapons whose purchases attracted the suspicion of the Fast and Furious investigators.
"Like each of you, I want to know why and how firearms that should have been under surveillance could wind up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels," Holder said in prepared testimony for his appearance on Capitol Hill. The Justice Department released excerpts of Holder's prepared remarks late Monday.
Holder, who says he learned of problems in Fast and Furious early this year when several agents complained of problems in the probe, has become a focal point for criticism in a congressional investigation by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. Republican critics have suggested Holder was informed of the problems as early as last July when the operation's name turned up repeatedly in weekly departmental reports. The reports provided updates on dozens of investigations, including Fast and Furious, but do not mention the gun-walking tactic.
Holder used what is likely to be a contentious hearing as an opportunity to urge support for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that oversaw Operation Fast and Furious.
Holder cited congressional testimony by some of the ATF agents in the probe who said they lack effective enforcement tools. They have sought clearer authority to arrest straw purchasers and tougher prison sentences for them. Holder asked Congress to "fully fund our request for teams of agents to fight gun trafficking."
The attorney general will testify to the Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who on Monday asked whether the Justice Department's inspector general has expanded its probe of Operation Fast and Furious to include earlier Bush-era arms trafficking probes that relied on gun-walking.
The Associated Press reported on Friday that a briefing paper prepared for then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey during the Bush administration in 2007 outlined failed attempts by federal agents to track illicitly purchased guns across the border into Mexico. Those failed attempts involved an earlier gun-walking probe run out of the same ATF office in Phoenix that later handled Operation Fast and Furious.
A month ago, the AP also disclosed that several hundred weapons wound up in the hands of arms traffickers in a second Bush-era gun-walking probe beginning in 2006. It was called Operation Wide Receiver and was run out of the ATF's office in Tucson, Ariz.