WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A senior Justice Department official learned last year about a bungled 2006 operation that failed to track guns to Mexican drug cartels, but did not issue an edict to halt the tactic, which was repeated in a later sting, the agency disclosed on Monday.
Lanny Breuer, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s criminal division, was briefed in April 2010 about an operation called “Wide Receiver,” in which as many as 500 guns were allowed to illegally cross the border to Mexican cartels between 2006 and 2007 without being tracked.
Breuer directed his staff to brief Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives leaders about the matter, but Justice Department officials said no one took action to ensure the tactics were not being used in other operations.
At that point, another sting was already under way by ATF and prosecutors in Arizona, dubbed “Fast and Furious”. Agents were again trying to track guns to the Mexican cartels, but failed to watch the weapons as they crossed the border.
“I regret that I did not alert others within the leadership of the Department Justice to the tactics used in Operation Wide Receiver when they first came to my attention,” Breuer said in a statement.
The Obama administration has been under scrutiny by congressional Republicans questioning who allowed such tactics to be used; who within the Justice Department, ATF and the White House knew about them; and when they knew.
Officials had hoped the sting operation would lead them to senior Mexican cartel members. Instead, some guns have been found at crime scenes on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress have been upset because weapons from the Fast and Furious operation were found at the crime scene where a U.S. Border Patrol agent was gunned down. It was not clear if those weapons fired the fatal shot.
Republicans have focused on Attorney General Eric Holder, slated to testify to the Senate Judiciary Committee next week. But attention will likely turn to Breuer who is scheduled to testify to a Senate subcommittee on Tuesday.
Breuer was tapped to head the department’s criminal division. He worked previously with Holder at the prestigious private law firm Covington & Burling. Breuer also worked in the White House counsel’s office in the Clinton administration.
The Justice Department sent up roughly 600 pages of documents to congressional investigators in response to a subpoena from the House of Representatives Oversight Committee and made about 100 pages available to reporters.
In one email, Breuer deputy Jason Weinstein wrote in April 2010, regarding Operation Wide Receiver, that ATF “should/will be embarrassed that they let this many guns walk -- I‘m stunned ....” He set up briefings with senior ATF officials.
Justice Department officials, who would only speak on the condition that they were not further identified, told reporters that beyond those briefings, no one took action to ensure the tactics were not being used in other operations.
The Wide Receiver case was shelved during the Bush administration, though it was not immediately clear why.
A prosecutor in the Obama administration agreed to pick it up and pursue the charges against those allegedly involved.
Weinstein said in an April 30, 2010 email to Breuer that ATF agents only were able to arrest the initial gun purchasers “and didn’t recover many guns. Some were recovered in MX (Mexico) after being used in crimes.”
Weinstein and other Justice Department officials also recommended to Breuer that details of the case be quietly released to try to avoid scrutiny of the botched operation, according to the documents.
Only when Holder learned about the botched “Fast and Furious” operation earlier this year did he issue an edict to ensure no guns were allowed to cross the border as part of a sting case unless they were fully tracked.
Republican Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, questioned why no one in the Justice Department intervened after the revelations about the 2006 investigation.
“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,” he said.
Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh