Attorney General Eric Holder said today that the controversial tactic that allowed illegal guns to be smuggled to Mexico “should never have happened, and it must never happen again.”
In testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Holder hit hard at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives practice that has tainted his tenure at the Justice Department, and led to some Republican calls for him to resign.
“I want to be clear: Any instance of so-called ‘gun walking’ is unacceptable,” Holder said of weapons smuggling, later adding: “This operation was flawed in its concept, and flawed in its execution.”
Holder acknowledged what critics have been saying about the long-term consequences of “gun walking.”
“Unfortunately we will feel its effects for years to come, as guns that were lost during this operation continue to show up at crime scenes both here and in Mexico,” Holder said. “We are losing the battle to stop the flow of illegal guns to Mexico.”
Holder defended his own actions, reminding the panel he called for the inspector general to examine the so-called Operation Fast and Furious and issued a directive that “gun-walking” was illegal and should never be repeated. The resulting report may be concluded before the end of the year.
However, Holder stopped short of laying blame for the flawed operation. Last week, his assistant attorney general, Lanny Breuer, expressed “regret” for his failure to alert Holder about the operation.
Republican critics said Breuer knew of the program that repeated practices from an earlier operation under the Bush administration, and called for Holder to crack down on those responsible.
“The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter how many laws we pass if those responsible for enforcing them refuse to do their duty — as was the case in Fast and Furious,” Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa said in his opening statement.
Holder made a plea to the committee for strengthening the authority of the ATF to detect and disrupt illegal gun trafficking, and urged full funding for the ATF to combat gun-running.
In addition, he took an apparent swipe at his Republican critics.
“I am determined to ensure that our shared concerns about Operation Fast and Furious lead to more than headline-grabbing Washington ‘gotcha’ games and cynical political point scoring,” Holder concluded.
Holder has the strong support of fellow Democrat Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, chairman of the committee, who opened the hearing by reciting successes by the Justice Department under Holder’s leadership.
On Monday, Leahy tried to lower the heat on Holder by blaming the Bush administration for first allowing the “gun-walking” tactic.
In a letter to the Justice Department inspector general, Leahy asked whether the current investigation also will cover the Bush-era supervision of the ATF.
Leahy said that during another operation, called Wide Receiver, in 2006, “hundreds of weapons apparently moved beyond the custody and control of the ATF and possibly into Mexico and Arizona.” Leahy also said then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey may have been briefed in the case in 2007.
Holder faces what is likely to be a much more hostile environment next month when he testifies before a House panel where Republican Darrell Issa, R-California, will wield the gavel and control the questioning.