A House committee is accusing top Justice Department officials of turning a blind eye to a bungled gun sting that allowed hundreds of semiautomatic weapons to flow to straw buyers for Mexican drug cartels and be used in crimes on both sides of the border.
In an investigative report to be released Tuesday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee lays out detailed evidence that guns from a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) operation known as Operation Fast and Furious fell into the hands of criminals with federal agents' knowledge and were used in crimes.
“The faulty design of Operation Fast and Furious led to tragic consequences,” said the report, obtained early by The Daily Beast. “Countless United States and Mexican citizens suffered as a result.”
The report also discloses that a top Justice Department official was sent by Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer to a briefing in 2010 in which concerns about the bungled sting—particularly the large number of weapons it allowed to flow into Mexico—were discussed, but there was no action to halt the operation. As a result, more guns flowed across the border for months until two weapons from the bungled sting showed up at the scene of the murder of a U.S. border agent last December, forcing the immediate shutdown of the case, the report states.
Earlier this year when the gun controversy first erupted, Justice officials claimed they didn't know anything about the controversial tactics used in the Arizona-based operation. But the congressional report concludes that senior Justice officials did know about the operation and should have acted sooner to stop the tactics.
The report quotes ATF officials in Mexico who allege that Breuer, who oversees all criminal prosecutions inside the Justice Department, attended a meeting with them in summer 2010 and made statements suggesting to them he was aware of the Arizona case and expected it to result in a good outcome.
“The Department of Justice and more specifically Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, clearly knew about Operation Fast and Furious,” the report concludes. “...Instead of stemming the flow of firearms to Mexico, Operation Fast and Furious arguably contributed to an increase in weapons and violence.”
Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said Monday night the department had not yet seen the congressional report and couldn't comment on its conclusions.
The bungled gun sting, which began in late 2009 and was finally shut down in early 2011, has spawned controversy on both sides of the border after revelations that ATF agents were instructed to knowingly let guns “walk” into the hands of drug cartel straw buyers with the expectation the weapons would flow across the border into Mexico's drug wars.
The agency allowed more than 1,700 weapons to flow to the straw buyers, abandoning its normal tactic of trying to interdict such weapons. As a result, hundreds of the guns that “walked” later showed up at crime scenes, murders and drug seizures on both sides of the border. ATF has said it hoped the controversial tactic would allow its agents to trace guns used in crimes in Mexico to the cartels, allowing for bigger prosecutions.
President Obama has since said he believes the strategy was mistaken. Justice ordered an internal review and instructed federal law enforcement to return to the practice of interdicting weapons as soon as they fall into the hands of criminals.
The House committee investigation, led by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., has tried to determine who in government knew about the sting and approved of its tactics.