The Justice Department itself is now assigning blame -- and recommending disciplinary action -- for the bungled operation that was supposed to track weapons to Mexican drug cartels -- but instead let guns walk across the border where they showed up at crime scenes, including the murder of a U.S. border agent.
The Justice Department's internal watchdog on Wednesday blamed the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and federal prosecutors for hatching a "misguided" and "risky" strategy that allowed U.S. semiautomatic weapons to flow to Mexican drug cartels.
The report by Inspector General Michael Horowitz did not criticize Attorney General Eric Holder, concluding he did not know about the bungled Fast and Furious gun operation in Arizona until after it became public and did not know about the controversial tactic known as "gun walking", in which ATF agents failed to interdict weapons they suspected were illegally being trafficked to Mexico.
It did, however, blame Justice Department leadership in Washington for providing Congress a false initial account that denied that gun walking had occurred.
Horwitz "found failures by Department officials related to these matters, including failing to respond accurately to a Congressional inquiry about them," the 471-page report, made public Wendesday, concluded.
The watchdog recommended that more than a dozen officials receive disciplinary action, and Justice officials disclosed that one of them, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jason Weinstein, had resigned.
A lawyer for Mark Chait, one of ATF's senior headquarters officials, slammed the report as unfairly critizing ATF managers in Washington when the evidence showed the ATF office in Phoenix had not told them about the gun walking.
"The Inspector General’s report on Operation Fast and Furious reflects a disregard for material facts and a misuse of selected information to fit faulty theories and assumptions," said Chait's attorney, David Laufman. "Contrary to the IG report's findings, Mr. Chait had no contemporaneous knowledge or reason to believe that ATF agents in the Phoenix field division were allowing firearms to flow to suspected straw purchasers, or were foregoing the interdiction of firearms transfers when operationally feasible and permissible under law."
Acting ATF Director B. Todd Jones, who took over the agency after the public controversy, said Wednesday his agency has implemented several reforms to ensure such tactics don't get used again, and has referred several officials for disciplinary action.
Nonetheless, Jones declared: "ATF accepts full responsibility for its failure to exercise proper leadership and oversight of these investigations. Combined with the lack of effective and accurate internal communication up and down the chain of command, our shortcomings led to a series of regrettable events."
The report said ATF officials in Washington headquarters and ATF supervisors and officials in the U.S. Attorney's office in Phoenix were responsible for a "series of misguided strategies, tactics, errors in judgment, and management failures."
It concluded that the tactics of letting guns walk occurred in two separate invetsigations centered in Phoenix: Fast and Furious and an earlier operation known as "Wide Receiver."
"In the course of our review we identified individuals ranging from line agents and prosecutors in Phoenix and Tucson to senior ATF officials in Washington, D.C., who bore a share of responsibility for ATF’s knowing failure in both these operations to interdict firearms illegally destined for Mexico, and for doing so without adequately taking into account the danger to public safety that flowed from this risky strategy," the report said.
Approximately 2,000 weapons were allowed to flow from suspected straw buyers to Mexican drug cartels during the Fast & Furious operation from late 2009 to 2011 -- until ATF agents blew the whistle after two of the weapons turned up at the scene of a fatal shootng of a U.S. border agent.
Justice officials initially denied to Congress that guns had been allowed to walk but then admitted the tactic had been used months later.
Fast and Furious is the code name given to a federal firearms trafficking operation in Arizona in 2009-10 that let more than 1,700 semiautomatic weapons flow into the hands of straw-buyers for Mexican drug gangs.
The ATF is the acronym for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the federal law enforcement agency that combats illegal gun trafficking.