DOJ Official Regrets Not Telling Holder about Fast and Furious

By Fred Lucas | November 1, 2011 | 4:09 PM EDT

Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer heads the Justice Department's Criminal Division. (AP File Photo)

( –The head of the Justice Department’s criminal division was aware of Operation Fast and Furious at least as early as April 2010 and told a Senate panel that he did not tell Attorney General Eric Holder or other superiors about it, a decision he regrets.

“I cannot be more clear that knowing now, had I known then what I know now, I of course would have told the deputy and the attorney general,” Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer told the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism that he should have known more about the operation and should have reported it to superiors.

Operation Fast and Furious was a “gunwalking” program that began in September 2009. Gunwalking is a term used to allow guns to be sold to criminals with the intent of tracking. Except in this case, the Justice Department lost track of almost 2,000 weapons sold to straw purchasers. The operation was halted in December 2010 after two guns from the program were found at the murder scene of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.

“I should have, back in April 2010 have been able to draw that connection,” Breuer told the senator. “I’ve expressed that regret personally to the attorney general of the United States and then I determined that I should do it publicly as well.”

Breuer’s testimony comes one day after he issued a written statement asserting he was aware of the operation in April 2010 but did not inform Holder. Holder has been under fire over questions about when he first learned about the operation. He told the House Judiciary Committee on May 3 that he only knew about the operation for the last few weeks, but recently released Justice Department memos show he was informed in the summer of 2010.

Breuer’s statement and testimony came as Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, released e-mails showing that Breuer had an e-mail exchange that specifically mentions Fast and Furious with his assistant Jason Weinstein on April 30, 2010.

In a separate Dec. 3, 2009 e-mail, Acting ATF Director Kenneth Melson requested a prosecutor from central DOJ headquarters to work on border gun prosecutions, which Breuer called, “a terrific idea,” in his Dec. 4, 2009 reply.

Breuer insisted that while he was aware of the operation, he was not aware that it involved gunwalking, similar to a Bush administration program called Wide Receiver that allowed about 350 guns to walk to Mexico.

“I first heard about the tactics, about guns being permitted to go to Mexico, when the ATF had both the legal authority to interdict them and the ability to interdict them, I first heard about those allegations when the ATF agents went public,” Breuer said.

Grassley recalled that in Feb. 4 this year, the Justice Department denied that guns were ever allowed to flow to Mexico.

“The American people – and especially the family of murdered Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry – deserve answers from the Justice Department about whey they claim they didn’t know gunwalking was occurring in Operation Fast and Furious when the department’s fingerprints are all over it,” Grassley said in his opening remarks before asking most of the questions.

Grassley also addressed the comparison between the Bush Justice Department’s Wide Receiver program and the Obama Justice Department’s Fast and Furious program.

“In Operation Wide Receiver, around 300 guns were walked by ATF,” Grassley said. “In Fast and Furious, just five of the straw buyers were allowed to purchase nearly 1,000 guns.”

Document released by Grassley’s office also show that then Deputy Attorney General Gary Grindler – now the attorney general’s chief of staff – was briefed on the operation on March 12, 2010, where he saw a Power Point presentation that included information that one straw purchaser alone bought as many guns as were walked in the entire Operation Wide Receiver.

Grassley referred to the Feb. 4, 2011 letter from Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich, a congressional liaison for the department, that said, “At the outset, the allegation in your January 27 letter – that ATF ‘sanctioned’ or otherwise knowingly allowed the sale of assault weapons to a straw purchaser who then transported them from Mexico – is false. ATF makes every effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico.”

Grassley asked Breuer if he was aware of the letter at the time. “I cannot say for sure whether I saw a draft of the letter that was sent to you. What I can tell you, senator, is that at that time I was in Mexico dealing the very real issues.”

In his written statement issued Monday, Breuer said, “When the allegations related to Operation Fast and Furious became public earlier this year, the leadership of the ATF and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona repeatedly assured individuals in the Criminal Division and the leadership of the Department of Justice that those allegations were not true.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said that guns are the real problem after Breuer said in response to one of her questions that 64,000 of the 94,000 weapons recovered in Mexico were traced back to the United States.

“My concern, Mr. Chairman, is that there’s been a lot said about Fast and Furious, and perhaps mistakes were made,” Feinstein said. “But I think this hunt for blame doesn’t really speak about the problem. And the problem is, anybody can walk in and buy anything.”

She asked Breuer, “Do you believe that if there were some form of registration when you purchase these firearms, that would make a difference?”

Breuer replied, “I do, senator. Senator, we are talking about transnational organized crimes. Your leadership, the chairman’s, other senators shows that information is the tool we need to challenge the people that are committing this crime.”