The director of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives battled accusations Wednesday that his agency has done little to punish those involved in Operation Fast and Furious.
"Three years after the death of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, ATF has yet to fire anybody for their role in Operation Fast and Furious," Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said. "That is inexcusable."
Guns linked to the failed anti-gun trafficking program were found at Agent Brian Terry's murder scene. ATF Director B. Todd Jones, in his first public testimony on Capitol Hill since he was confirmed, faced repeated questions about that operation Wednesday.
Though Attorney General Eric Holder promised accountability, and a review board wanted those involved fired or suspended, Jones acknowledged that no one lost their job or took a cut in pay.
"I own it, for good or bad, and when something is wrong I am going to take action to fix it," Jones said. "But doesn't happen overnight."
Operation Fast and Furious began in 2009. Over two years, the agency helped transfer some 2,000 guns, mostly assault rifles, to Mexican drug cartels. An internal ATF review board recommended Phoenix Agent in Charge Bill Newell be removed; Case Agent Hope McAllister be suspended; and Supervisory Agent Dave Voth be demoted.
All three remain at ATF.
Jones said the agency followed civil service due process rules. He also admitted he delegated the decision to his deputy director.
"Is it fair to say your number two made the call?" Issa asked. "That's fair to say," Jones replied.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, also challenged Jones. "Is it safe to report ... Fast and Furious was fatally flawed?" he asked.
"That's why I'm here," Jones told the committee. "It was a lack of oversight and leadership failure."
Visibly exasperated at times, Jones spent most of the nearly three-hour hearing defending Operation Fearless, a separate investigation targeting gang members involved in the sale of illegal firearms. ATF opened 37 pawn shops and undercover storefronts around the U.S. in hopes of arresting the sellers and getting crime guns off the street. The tactics, however, were controversial. Agents attracted teens with free video games and alcohol and, in one case, paid a mentally handicapped informant to get a tattoo on his neck of a squid smoking a joint to promote the store. Agents later arrested the man, who had an IQ of 50.
"Are you telling us it's just an accident that your people managed to find people with extremely low IQs, people who are barely functional?" Issa asked.
"No, that's not correct," Jones bristled, saying agents target criminal behavior, not intelligence. "It wasn't our A game. We can do better. I can admit that," he added.
Like any undercover operation, Jones said decisions are made on the fly and agents need to be flexible. Over a year, the operation helped convict more than 250 defendants and recovered more than 1,300 firearms. The defendants had more than 350 previous felony convictions.