The Justice Department's internal investigation of the debacle known as "Operation Fast and Furious," a poorly thought out and worse executed federal gun program that resulted in the death of a U.S. border agent and 1,400 guns still illegally on the street, has resulted in the retirement and resignation of two senior Justice officials.
The 471-page report, which didn't criticize Attorney General Eric Holder, pointed to more than a dozen Justice officials who should be subject to disciplinary action and pointed to poor communications, judgment and strategies.
Under Fast and Furious -- a gun-running investigation conducted in Arizona that was similar to a previous operation that the Bush administration had already tried and determined to be unworkable -- agents with the Justice Department's Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Bureau allowed people who they believed to be working for Mexican drug gangs to buy weapons and Phoenix gun stores. The idea was they would let these low-level lackeys take them to the smugglers who the agency has been unable to corral.
ATF needed to try something different to stop the exportation of U.S. weaponry to these bloodthirsty gangsters, who had managed to get nearly 70,000 weapons over a five-year period. In addition to battling thin staffing and penalties that were lacking when they tried to intercept the guns at the so-called "straw purchaser" level, ATF was under mounting criticism for failing to stop more of the shipments into Mexico.
What the Obama administration should have done was bolster the ranks of federal law enforcement along the border and seek stronger penalties from Congress. Instead, ATF twisted in the wind and officials with the agency concocted Fast and Furious, another example of a bad decision born out of duress. This series of bad decisions resulted 14 guilty pleas so far out of 20 arrests, but it also led to 1,400 guns unaccounted for that have been used in who knows how many crimes.
We do know one victim of a crime committed with two of the weapons that federal officials watched go out of the store -- border agent Brian Terry. He was shot to death with them.
The inspector general found fault at several levels -- ATF leadership and staff, the U.S. attorney's office in Phoenix and senior officials of the Justice Department's criminal division in Washington.
The inspector general also determined that poor internal information-gathering and drafting at Holder's Justice Department and the ATF resulted in Congress getting false information about the operation, noting that he could find no evidence that Holder had been apprised of the operation before the end of January in 2011. There's no way to know what Holder was told or when he was told it, but we have a suspicion that when the plan blew up, there was a hope that the details would never come to light, which is the sort of inclination that can lead to communications problems cited in the report.
Criticism in the report was leveled against Kenneth Melson, former acting director of ATF, who retired when it was released Wednesday; Justice attorney Jason Weinstein, a deputy assistant attorney general in Justice's criminal division in Washington who resigned. The inspector general also criticized former acting Deputy Attorney General Gary Grindler; Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, who heads the criminal division; Arizona U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke, and Monty Wilkinson, who was Holder's former deputy chief of staff.
Stopping the flow of guns into Mexico is a tough job, but it cannot be made easier through implementation of an ill-conceived operation that is sure to fail while also ignoring the safety of the public.
-- The Albany Herald Editorial Board