WASHINGTON (AP)—The Justice Department's internal watchdog on Wednesday faulted the agency for misguided strategies, errors in judgment, and management failures during a bungled gun-trafficking probe in Arizona that disregarded public safety and resulted in hundreds of weapons turning up at crime scenes in the U.S. and Mexico.
A former head of the department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and a deputy assistant attorney general in Justice's criminal division in Washington left the department upon the report's release—the first by retirement, the second by resignation.
In the 471-page report, Inspector General Michael Horowitz referred more than a dozen people for possible department disciplinary action for their roles in Operation Fast and Furious and a separate, earlier probe known as Wide Receiver, undertaken during the George W. Bush administration. A former acting deputy attorney general and the head of the criminal division were criticized for actions and omissions related to operations subsequent to and preceding Fast and Furious.
The report did not criticize Attorney General Eric Holder, but said lower-level officials should have briefed him about the investigation much earlier.
The report found no evidence that Holder was informed about the Fast and Furious operation before Jan. 31, 2011, or that the attorney general was told about the much-disputed gun-walking tactic employed by the ATF.
Gun-walking was an experimental tactic, barred under long-standing department policy. ATF agents in Arizona allowed suspected "straw purchasers," in these cases believed to be working for Mexican drug gangs, to leave Phoenix-area gun stores with weapons in order to track them and bring charges against gun-smuggling kingpins who long had eluded prosecution, but they lost track of most of the guns.
The experimental operations were a response to widespread criticisms of the agency's anti-smuggling efforts. Because of thin ATF staffing and weak penalties, the traditional strategy of arresting suspected straw buyers as soon as possible had failed to stop the flow of tens of thousands of guns to Mexico—more than 68,000 in the past five years.