WASHINGTON – Congressional Republican investigators have singled out five employees in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to blame for the botched anti-gunrunning operation known as Fast and Furious, in a report on the scandal obtained by Fox News.
The report, the first of three to be issued from the congressional investigation, concludes that the five employees were responsible for an operation "marred by missteps, poor judgments and inherently reckless strategy." All five have since been reassigned but remain employed in the agency.
The findings put additional pressure on the Obama administration in an ongoing battle over what higher-level officials knew, if anything, about the ATF operation.
For more than a year, Republicans have been leading an investigation into Fast and Furious, which was launched in Arizona in late 2009 by ATF, with help from the U.S. attorney's office there. The operation's targets bought nearly 2,000 weapons over several months. But for reasons that are still in dispute, most of the weapons sold were never followed, and high-powered weapons tied to the investigation ended up at crime scenes in Mexico and the United States, including the December 2010 murder of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
The Republican-led House voted late in June to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt, but Justice officials since then essentially have said the ball is still in Republicans' court, if they intend to follow through with vows to file a civil lawsuit seeking the remaining documents.
"If Rep. Issa wants to continue to spend precious resources recycling old conspiracy theories for stale reports that do nothing to improve public safety that is his prerogative," said Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler.
She also argued the report shows the committee finally acknowledges what the attorney general and other (Justice) Department officials have been saying from the beginning --"that the flaws in this operation and in previous ones had their origins in the field in Arizona and occurred in part due to weak oversight by ATF leadership."
The congressional investigative report, to be issued Tuesday, specifically faults Acting Director Kenneth Melson; Deputy Director William Hoover; William Newell, special agent in charge of the Phoenix Field Division; William McMahon, deputy assistant director for field operations, and Mark Chait, assistant director for field operations.
Melson told investigators he felt the Justice Department was making him a scapegoat for the operation's failure.
"I think they were doing more damage control than anything," he testified, as quoted in the investigative report. "My view is that the whole matter of the department's response in this case was a disaster."
The congressional investigators noted that Melson "was concerned that Fast and Furious did not end sooner", but they also faulted him for never ordering it to be shut down.
The report faults Hoover for knowing Newell had employed "risky tactics" but allowing them to continue. Chait, for his part "paid a surprisingly passive role during the operation," while McMahon seemed to be nothing more than a "rubber stamp" for field operations, the report concludes.
Newell attorney Paul Pelletier blasted House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa in a statement overnight, saying Issa "has consistently shown that he won't let the truth get in the way of his quixotic political witch hunt."
The two other reports being prepared for release will focus more on the Justice Department's oversight role in the operation and its dealings with congressional investigators. Republicans have suggested Justice officials have resorted to political stonewalling in an attempt to cover up the truth, while administration officials have described the Republican investigation as a witch hunt.
But several Democrats joined House Republicans in voting for the contempt resolutions after Holder failed to give congressional investigators documents in response to a subpoena last year. Meetings in the run-up to the vote failed to reach a compromise, after President Obama asserted executive privilege over the documents.
Specifically, the documents at issue are mostly composed of internal Justice Department emails after Feb. 4, 2011, when department officials realized they would have to retract a letter to Congress that denied Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents ever let guns fall into the hands of suspected criminals.
In one email from early 2011, described to Fox News, Holder told subordinates: "We need answers on this. Not defensive BS. Real answers." The email was among several shown in two separate meetings with House Republicans and Democrats last week.
Issa, R-Calif., has said it is "critically important" to obtain the post-Feb. 4, 2011, documents at issue because, among other things, they could show whether top officials were "surprised or were already aware" about so-called "gunwalking" in Fast and Furious when confronted with new information. In essence, Republicans say the documents could show whether the false letter was part of a "cover-up."
In a hearing before the contempt votes, Issa insisted Holder offered "to provide subpoenaed documents only if the committee agrees in advance to close the investigation," adding, "No investigator would ever agree to that."
But Justice Department officials have disputed that account. A Justice Department official insisted last month the documents at issue "show no intention or attempt to conceal information or mislead (Congress)."
Nevertheless, Boehner has said that a civil lawsuit to obtain the documents would be pursued.
Fox News' William LaJeunesse and Laura Prabucki contributed to this report.