WASHINGTON Attorney General Eric Holder expressed regret on Tuesday over a botched operation meant to track guns smuggled to Mexican drug cartels and acknowledged his department misinformed Congress about it.
Republican Senator Chuck Grassley slammed Holder and the U.S. Justice Department for inaccurately telling lawmakers in a February letter the agency did everything possible to try to stop weapons bought illegally from being sent to Mexico.
"In the nine months since then, mounting evidence has put the lie to that claim," Grassley said to Holder at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. "Documents contradicting the department's denials came to light."
Grassley said the head of the Justice Department's criminal division, Lanny Breuer, who is a close Holder friend, failed to correct the record for months even though he knew it was inaccurate to say the agency had done everything it could.
Holder told the panel that "Operation Fast and Furious," which was run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and federal prosecutors in Arizona, was "flawed in its concept and flawed in its execution."
The operation was meant to track guns as they made their way south of the border to senior members of the violent Mexican drug cartels after being bought by a so-called straw buyer. However, ATF agents rarely pursued the weapons after they were bought.
As a result, hundreds of guns are now missing, although some have been found at crime scenes on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
The scandal erupted after two guns from the operation were found at the scene after a U.S. Border Patrol agent, Brian Terry, was shot dead by illegal immigrants.
It was not clear whether the weapons were responsible for the agent's death, but the possibility has since prompted an internal Justice Department investigation and one by Congress. Holder also expressed regret for the agent's death.
There was a similar case during the Bush administration, known as "Operation Wide Receiver," and a few hundred guns were allowed to be smuggled in to Mexico. Breuer was advised about that case in early 2010.
HOLDER STANDS BY CRIMINAL CHIEF
Holder told lawmakers the Justice Department did not intentionally provide inaccurate information to Congress and that it was the best information they had at the time. He defended his senior aide Breuer despite the criticism from Republicans.
"The information that is contained in that February 4th letter to you was not in fact accurate ... I regret that," Holder told the Senate panel, adding "I don't expect to hear a resignation offer from Mr. Breuer."
Holder also tried to turn the debate to addressing the ease with which guns can be bought and to ATF's need for more resources to stem the flow of guns south of the border, but Republicans sought quickly to put a damper on that idea.
"We must be careful not to lose sight of the critical problem that this flawed investigation has highlighted: We're losing the battle to stop the flow of illegal guns to Mexico," Holder said.
Republicans have hammered Holder about who in the Justice Department knew about and approved the operation, raising questions about memos sent to Holder and aides last year.
"Can you name me one person who's been held accountable for this Fast and Furious operation?" Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn demanded.
Holder said the memos, despite being addressed to him, went to his staff and did not refer to specific tactics or the operation's name. He also pointed to a personnel shake-up in the ATF and prosecutors' office in Phoenix and that there is new leadership at ATF's Washington headquarters.
"I will certainly await the report that comes out of the inspector general and I will assure you and the American people that people will held accountable for any mistakes that were made in connection with Fast and Furious," he said.
Holder is due to testify to the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee next month. Some House Republicans on the panel have demanded his resignation, and the National Rifle Association, the powerful gun lobby, has also begun running ads on cable television calling for him to step down.
(Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Philip Barbara)