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12.08.11

Attorney General Eric Holder Grilled on Bungled Gun Sting

With Republicans calling for one of his top deputies to resign, Attorney General Eric Holder faced tough questions on Capitol Hill about a bungled federal gun sting that let guns slip to Mexican drug lords.

Under intense questioning from House Republicans, Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged Thursday that hundreds of semiautomatic weapons that federal agents let flow to “straw”—i.e., proxy—buyers for Mexican drug cartels will continue to show up at crime scenes for years to come, a deadly legacy from a bungled government sting.

"Guns lost during this operation will continue to show up at crime scenes on both sides of the border," Holder testified before the House Judiciary Committee, conceding a continuing fallout from a federal sting operation known as "Fast and Furious" that has generated controversy in both the United States and Mexico.

Holder, however, denied anew that he and other top officials in his department knew about the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' flawed strategy of "letting guns walk" in the Fast and Furious investigation until news media broke the story earlier this year. “It is my understanding that department leaders were not informed about the inappropriate tactics employed in this operation until those tactics were made public,” he testified.

ATF officials have acknowledged more than 1,700 semiautomatic weapons were allowed to pass through the hands of straw buyers with the expectation they'd end up in the hands of drug cartels across the border, and that several have since turned up at murder and other crime scenes. Two of the weapons, for instance, turned up at the scene of the killing of a U.S. border agent last December, though neither is believed to be the actual weapon used to kill Agent Brian Terry.

Rep. Darrell E. Issa charged that the Fast and Furious program could be blamed for the death of a U.S. border-patrol agent killed last year.

Frontline ATF agents have already testified they strongly objected to the tactic of letting guns walk, and wanted to interdict the weapons, but were overruled by supervisors. And both Holder and President Obama have said the tactics were flawed and will never again be used. Still, Republicans believe that an internal Justice Department memo they've obtained suggests Holder's top deputies knew or should have known about the tactics back in July 2010 and failed to stop the operation.

Holder testified Thursday he didn't see that memo until 2011 and that other documents undercut "the remarkable notion that this operation was conceived by department leaders."

The embattled attorney general stepped into a packed hearing one day after an influential U.S. senator called for the resignation of one of Holder’s top deputies.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), an influential senator on judicial issues who launched the initial probe into the Fast and Furious gun controversy, issued an early salvo Wednesday when he called for the resignation of Holder’s assistant attorney general, Lanny Breuer, who oversees all criminal matters at the embattled Department of Justice.

While there have been calls for resignations over the scandal, none have come from anyone with Grassley’s stature until now. In the Fast and Furious investigation, run by the Arizona office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, up to 2,000 firearms were purchased by straw buyers with the knowledge of federal agents. The guns weren’t tracked but were instead allowed into Mexico. Many of the guns that federal agents let walk have been involved in homicides since.

Grassley, in a floor statement Wednesday, criticized Breuer for his “complete lack of judgment,” in failing to alert the Justice Department about Fast and Furious when he learned of it in 2010. Grassley also said Breuer gave “misleading” answers in earlier testimony. Breuer, he said, misled Congress about a DOJ letter earlier in 2011 that erroneously denied that “gunwalking” ever occurred.

Holder endured similar barbs at Thursday's hearing. One of his fiercest critics, Rep. Darrell E. Issa (R-Calif.), is technically not a member of the committee, but he joined in the questioning, and charged that the Fast and Furious program could be blamed for the death of a U.S. border-patrol agent killed last year.

“Brian Terry is dead today in my opinion because of this failed program,” Issa said.

Holder, sitting alone at the witness table, read from his opening statement that “it is unfortunate that some have used inflammatory and inappropriate rhetoric about one particular tragedy,” clearing referring to the Terry shooting, “in an effort to score political points."

The Fast and Furious probe has stirred the ire of many Second Amendment supporters, and that has inspired extra interest in the scandal. The National Rifle Association insists the entire case was not just a bungled investigation but was in essence a conspiracy by the Justice Department to ship weapons to Mexico intentionally, in an effort to blame U.S. gun laws for Mexican violence. The Obama administration had pointed to the involvement of U.S. guns in cartel shootings. “It was all a frame-up against gun owners and the Second Amendment,” says a letter from NRA president Wayne LaPierre, on a website launched by the NRA to push for Holder’s ouster.