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The Buck Stops Short: New "Fast & Furious" Report Misses Leadership Failure

Saturday, December 1, 2012

By Chris W. Cox, NRA-ILA Executive Director

President Harry Truman famously had a sign on his desk that said “The Buck Stops Here.” It was a sentiment the American people respected, because it showed Truman understood an important truth: A leader is responsible not only for his own actions, but for the actions of his subordinates. 

That’s a lesson that apparently needs to be learned again at the top of the current Department of Justice (DOJ), based on the conclusions of a September report by the department’s Inspector General Michael Horowitz. Over the past two years, we have seen an embarrassing effort to pass the buck when it comes to the “Fast and Furious” gunrunning scandal. If the report is to be believed, not only did the buck not stop with Attorney General Eric Holder—it never even got to his desk.

The Report's Findings

Since December 2010, we have heard excuses, deflected blame and outright lies from Eric Holder’s Justice Department. Although the report fails to place the proper blame at the top where it belongs, it contains an important factual rundown of the operation that put thousands of guns in the hands of Mexican drug cartels.

The report runs a total of seven chapters and 512 pages. Five of the first six chapters detail the “Fast and Furious” operation and the people involved. One chapter takes a detour to focus on the six-year-old “Wide Receiver” operation, which serves little purpose but to allow deflection of blame onto the previous administration.

The last chapter contains the conclusions of the report, a listing of the officials it found responsible (and the ones it notably did not), as well as recommendations. Here are some of the most important findings:

Senior DOJ officials, including Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jason Weinstein and Kenneth Melson, the former acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE), failed to provide adequate oversight and control of “Fast and Furious.” In fact, the report claims that senior officials, including Holder, were completely unaware that thousands of illegal firearms were allowed to cross the border. 

No senior DOJ official who had knowledge of “Fast and Furious,” including the head of the Criminal Division, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, or the Attorney General’s deputy chief of staff, thought it was important to provide Holder any information about the operation.

Claims by Holder and congressional Democrats that “Fast and Furious” wiretap affidavits contained no significant information about reckless tactics or “gun walking” were wrong. 

A May 2, 2011, DOJ letter to congressional investigators, which said “It remains [the department’s] understanding that ATF’s Operation ‘Fast and Furious’ did not knowingly permit straw buyers to take guns into Mexico,” was “troubling,” because the senior DOJ officials who drafted or reviewed it already knew or should have known that a similar denial three months earlier had been false.

Report Recommendations

The report makes six recommendations for action. What stands out is that the recommended actions are things that you’d expect to be standard practice—such as ensuring that BATFE procedures comply with current Department of Justice policies. However, the report does not recommend any changes in basic policy and does not call for actually prohibiting the sort of reckless tactics used in “Fast and Furious.”

Without a doubt, the most telling recommendation is the last, which reads:

“The Department should require that high-level officials who are responsible for authorizing wiretap applications conduct reviews of the applications and affidavits that are sufficient to enable those officials to form a personal judgment that the applications meet the statutory criteria.”

Translated from government-speak, this says that before signing off on federal law enforcement agencies’ requests to listen in on Americans’ phone calls, DOJ officials should actually read the documents that back up the applications and make sure that the requests are legal and appropriate.

You have to wonder: If the Justice Department’s top criminal lawyers were not using their judgment with respect to these affidavits, why were they bothering to look at them at all? It is nothing short of astonishing that this recommendation had to be made. It is a significant indictment not only of those who failed to properly review the documents, but of Holder’s leadership of the entire department.

The "Wide Receiver" Diversion

One of the public relations tactics Obama administration apologists have used is to claim that "Fast and Furious" was the same as a short-lived and much smaller operation in 2006 called "Wide Receiver." The inclusion of this partisan political agenda item seriously weakens the report’s authority. (As if to prove that point, a few days after the report was released, President Obama misleadingly treated the two operations as one and the same, saying “I think it’s important for us to understand that the ‘Fast and Furious’ program was a field-initiated program begun under the previous administration”—once again blaming his predecessor for his own administration’s actions.)

But while the report details the significant differences between the two programs, it also attempts to tie them together as if they were essentially the same. They were not. "Wide Receiver" involved fewer than 400 firearms, and tracking and interdiction were central elements of the operation. So was notification of, and cooperation with, Mexican authorities. The operation was shut down when it was found that the tracking had broken down and interdiction was failing. The only tie between the programs was that some of the officials involved in "Wide Receiver" were later involved in "Fast and Furious."

If "Wide Receiver" was a bad idea—and it was—"Fast and Furious," which omitted any effort to track and interdict the illegal guns or to notify Mexican authorities, was far worse. The knowledge of the failure of "Wide Receiver" makes it doubly irresponsible for BATFE and DOJ officials to have even considered "Fast and Furious."

Failure of Responsibility

In spite of repeatedly finding that the DOJ failed to exercise its oversight responsibility, the report gives Attorney General Holder a complete pass. In fact, the report holds no DOJ official higher than Deputy Assistant Attorney General Weinstein responsible for approving or overseeing “Fast and Furious.” Even after citing the lack of oversight by senior DOJ officials, the report fails to assign responsibility for that failure where it really belongs.

But how can the attorney general and his senior staff be blameless? The report claims that senior officials did not know about the tactics used, and no effort was made to inform them—even though the report shows that these officials, including Holder, should have known what tactics were being used from the information provided in the wiretap affidavits. As the Inspector General put it, “We found that the affidavits described specific incidents that would suggest to a prosecutor who was focused on the question of investigative tactics that ATF was employing a strategy of not interdicting weapons or arresting known straw purchasers.”

In other words, had anyone at the head of the criminal division or in the attorney general’s office simply read the affidavits with care, they would have known what was going on. Perhaps House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, r-Calif., said it best: “If you touched, looked, could have touched, could have looked, could have asked for information that could have caused you to intervene ... and you didn’t, you fell short of your responsibility.”

Where We Stand Now

The report, in spite of its failure to hold Eric Holder or his senior staff responsible for their failures, does contain important information. The recommendations it makes are sound—so sound that they should already have been in effect. The report paints a picture of an agency—the BATFE—that paid little attention to protecting the public safety. It also clearly shows that Holder is detached from the most important role he should play: the oversight of law enforcement activities undertaken by DOJ agencies.

It is clear that the Obama administration, Eric Holder and their congressional allies want this report to end the congressional investigation. They have worked together to stonewall the congressional investigation for the past two years—and they are now claiming the report exonerates Holder and his senior deputies, and are calling on critics to move on.

But we should not move on until the administration and the DOJ release all the documents requested by Chairman Issa and by Sen. Charles Grassley, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s senior Republican. Two more reports are expected to be issued by Chairman Issa’s committee, and a civil lawsuit to enforce this summer’s contempt citation is also pending. We should not move on until all the questions are answered, and everyone who played a part in promoting, approving, implementing and covering up this scandal is held fully responsible. 

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