A top political appointee in the Obama Justice Department says he made a "mistake" when he didn't flag questionable tactics used by federal agents in a gun-trafficking case for his superiors last year.
Lanny A. Breuer, assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division, told NPR he found out in April 2010 that agents at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had let more than 400 guns connected to suspicious buyers cross the Southwest border during the Bush years, but he didn't tell senior leadership at the Justice Department.
"Knowing what I know now, I wish that I had alerted the deputy or the attorney general at the time," he said.
Notes from one of his aides taken during a damage-control meeting at the time reported of the guns: "vast majority walk, connected to violent crime."
At the time, Breuer says, he simply didn't draw a "connection" between a gun-trafficking operation known as Wide Receiver, which dated to 2006, and a different gun-trafficking operation known as Fast and Furious that was proceeding along the same lines under the watch of the Obama Justice Department.
"I and my team discovered that this kind of conduct occurred in that one case in no way ... suggested a real pattern or suggested that what the ATF director or U.S. attorney were saying in Fast and Furious was incorrect," he said.
Both investigations were designed to build big cases against key figures in Mexican drug cartels, which use American guns to fuel violence on both sides of the border. Instead, hundreds of U.S. weapons were lost and later turned up at crime scenes, including one in Arizona where U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in December 2010.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who has been leading one of the congressional investigations into the operations, said in a statement that "contrary to previous denials ... the criminal division has a great deal of culpability in sweeping the previous Wide Receiver strategy under the rug and then allowing the subsequent Operation Fast and Furious to continue without asking key questions."
A Justice Department liaison to Congress told lawmakers in a Feb. 4, 2011, letter that agents made "every effort" to interdict guns before they crossed the border. Breuer says he wasn't responsible for the drafting of that letter and that he "was traveling out of town" and focused on other cases when it was sent and drew headlines.
Breuer's remarks emerged on the same day Justice Department officials sent 650 documents to congressional oversight committees, offering new details about both failed law enforcement operations.
-- A Breuer deputy, Jason Weinstein, wrote that he was "stunned" when he learned in April 2010 that federal agents had mislaid so many guns during Operation Wide Receiver. Department officials discussed damage control and how to handle the bad news, ultimately meeting with ATF counterparts in what Breuer told NPR was a "forceful" response.
-- The former U.S. Attorney in Arizona, Dennis Burke, who resigned over the gun-trafficking scandal earlier this year, had tried to get Attorney General Eric Holder to fly to his state to announce criminal charges in the Fast and Furious operation. But talks ultimately broke down around the same time that word of Agent Terry's death filtered back to Washington. Senior Justice Department officials who briefed reporters Monday said Holder didn't know about the questionable tactics until late January or early February of this year, when he asked the department's inspector general to investigate. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has demanded answers about whether Holder knew more than he let on about the questionable tactics in the investigations.
-- Another memo by the federal prosecutor in Arizona overseeing the Fast and Furious operation said as of January 2010, "we do not have any chargeable offenses against any of the players" in the gun-trafficking investigation. Assistant U.S. Attorney Emory Hurley, who's since been moved to other responsibilities, said he agreed with the recommendation of ATF officials in Arizona that agents should wait and try to build a bigger case against the major players. The memo was written less than two weeks before a gun dealer in the state sold weapons to a straw buyer who allegedly bought guns found near the scene of Terry's death later that year.
Breuer is scheduled to testify Tuesday morning before a Senate Judiciary panel on the issue of international organized crime.
"If any good can come of this horrific, terrible tragedy, it should be that America has a serious and real conversation about our gun laws today," he told NPR. "The tragic truth is that if those criminals who killed Agent Terry had not gotten the guns from this one source, they would have gotten the gun from another source."
Nearly 100,000 guns were recovered in Mexico over the past five years, and 65 percent of them, Breuer says, came from the U.S.
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The Obama Justice Department is already in the midst of a scandal over a program that allowed weapons to flow into Mexico and the arms of drug cartels. Now newly released documents show that the Justice Department knew last year about a similar program that started back under the Bush administration.
INSKEEP: Both programs were run by Arizona offices of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF. ATF agents began using the tactic as a way to trace weapons trafficking.
MONTAGNE: The latest program, called Fast and Furious, became public after two of its weapons turned up at the site where a U.S. Border Patrol agent was killed last December. Lawmakers want to know if the ATF program inadvertently contributed to his death.
Critics say the documents that emerged yesterday prove the Justice Department could have flagged the earlier Bush era weapons program for members of Congress investigating the controversy. NPR's Carrie Johnson has more.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: A top aide in the Justice Department's criminal division wrote he was stunned to learn that agents has done nothing as hundreds of weapons bought by suspicious people crossed the Southwest border five years ago.
The discovery touched off a series of damage control meetings about how to handle the bad news. But senior political appointees say they didn't tell higher-ups and that Attorney General Eric Holder was insulated from the mess. Lanny Breuer leads the criminal division at Justice.
LANNY BREUER: Knowing what I know now, I wish that I had alerted the deputy or the attorney general at the time. But back in April, I thought that contacting ATF leadership was the right thing to do.
JOHNSON: That was April 2010. Fast forward to this year. Republicans in Congress started asking questions about whether agents knowingly watched guns cross the border in a different failed law enforcement operation during the Obama administration. The Justice Department told lawmakers in February that agents make every effort to seize weapons, but the new documents complicate that picture. And Lanny Breuer is likely to get more questions when he testifies before a Senate committee today.
Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.