Old hands in Washington know it's never a good sign when the president of the United States has to make a statement like this one.
"I have complete confidence in Attorney General Holder, in how he handles his office," President Obama told reporters at a news conference Thursday. "He has been very aggressive in going after gunrunning and cash transactions that are going to these transnational drug cartels."
Obama spoke as a scandal over a botched gun-trafficking operation known as Fast and Furious intensified on Capitol Hill this week. Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, called for an independent counsel to investigate whether Eric Holder misled Congress about the operation. Shortly after the presidential news conference, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, called on Holder to resign.
Holder is in the spotlight because of emails and other documents the administration released to Republicans in Congress that show the attorney general seems to have known about the gun-trafficking operation much earlier than he said.
At a hearing in March, California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa asked: "When did you first know about the program officially, I believe, called Fast and Furious? To the best of your knowledge, what date?"
Holder replied: "I'm not sure the exact date, but I probably heard about Fast and Furious for the first time over the last few weeks."
The newly released documents show Holder received five weekly updates on the operation starting in July 2010. But the Justice Department chalks up the dispute to semantics. They say Holder meant he learned about federal agents' failure to monitor the weapons only earlier this year.
Issa, talking with MSNBC this week, says he isn't buying it.
"There may be an explanation that partially vindicates him — in other words, he may not have committed perjury — but he certainly failed in his duty of candor because he did know the name a year before that," Issa said.
On Thursday, the Justice Department released a statement defending Holder, saying "the Attorney General's testimony to both the House and Senate committees has been consistent and truthful.
"These brief entries buried in a few written reports reveal nothing of the dangerous tactics that were employed in this operation," it said.
The goals behind Fast and Furious may be the only thing not in dispute. Law enforcement officials wanted to target big Mexican drug cartels that use U.S. weapons to fuel violence along the Southwest border. Agents at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives conducted surveillance at gun dealerships in Arizona, watching as suspicious people purchased large numbers of firearms. They intended to follow those weapons south, but agents in some cases lost track of the firearms. Some of the weapons later turned up near the body of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, killed in a gunfight last December in Arizona.
Two people have already lost their jobs over the scandal: Kenneth Melson, the acting head of the ATF, whose agents led the operation; and Dennis Burke, the U.S. attorney in Arizona, where the Fast and Furious operation played out.
This week, the new chief of the ATF, B. Todd Jones, followed through on a promise and overhauled his management team.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said the shake-up is a good thing, but "rearranging the chairs on the deck," he said, won't make this scandal go away.
The Justice Department's inspector general is investigating the Fast and Furious operation; the office is also looking into who at the Justice Department knew about the questionable tactics that agents were using.
Holder told reporters last month that senior Justice Department officials didn't know ATF had lost track of guns until whistle-blower complaints became public in early 2011.
"The notion that somehow or other that this thing reaches into the upper levels of the Justice Department is something that at this point I don't think is supported by the facts, and I think as we examine and also as all the facts are in fact revealed, we'll see that that is not the case," Holder said.
The Obama administration is continuing to turn over documents to Republicans in Congress, including emails that suggest the ATF may have used similar strategies during the last Bush administration. But Republicans leading the investigation say the "Bush did it, too" defense doesn't fix the problem of what this attorney general knew, and when.
The House Judiciary Committee expects to hear from Holder as early as next month.
New ATF Head: ‘We’ve Got to Hit Reset’ on Investigative Moves in Wake of Fast and Furious
By Mike Levine
Hoping to chart a new path forward in the wake of the controversial "Fast and Furious" investigation, the newly assigned head of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said Wednesday that "everything is under review" in the way of investigative practices and processes at the agency.
“We've got to hit the reset button and move forward," acting director B. Todd Jones said.
The furor over "Operation Fast and Furious" focuses on tactics used by ATF investigators in Arizona to target major gun-runners. Launched in late 2009, the investigation planned to follow gun purchasers in hopes that suspects would lead them to the heads of Mexican cartels. But high-powered weapons tied to the investigation ended up at crime scenes in Mexico and the United States, including the murder of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry late last year.
On Wednesday, Jones said there is now a "heightened awareness" throughout ATF over "the appropriateness" of such techniques.
"These have been some difficult times for everyone at ATF because of a case in a division that is getting a lot of attention," Jones told reporters at ATF headquarters in Washington. "But there is much good work being done around the country by the 25 field divisions that constitute ATF.”
The new ATF head announced nearly a dozen personnel changes within ATF leadership, including two associated with "Fast and Furious." Mark Chait, a top-ranking official in ATF's Office of Field Operations since May 2009, will become the head of the ATF's Baltimore field office. William Hoover, ATF's deputy director since 2009 whom Jones called "the point" on "Fast and Furious," will become head of the ATF's Washington field office.
Sen. Chuck Grassley issued a statement regarding the restructuring saying, "The reassignments are positive, especially in the case of Tom Brandon who I hope can help lead this agency out of its troubles. But, I caution that rearranging the chairs on the deck, won’t make Fast and Furious go away."
Grassley also questioned the timing of the announcement, suggesting it was an effort by the Justice Department to spin developments regarding statements made by Attorney General Holder to the House Judiciary Committee and stated that many questions remain unanswered.
Jones said the changes "reflect a certain level of accountability," adding that people in leadership positions "understand" they sometimes get credit for things they may not be responsible for, and sometimes they get blamed for things they may not be responsible for.
Nevertheless, Jones said ATF still faces legal obstacles in its effort to stop "straw purchasers," those who legally purchase guns for the purpose of then trafficking them to others.
"There are vulnerabilities in the law that make it challenging for us sometimes to do more fulsome investigations," said Jones, who’s doing double-duty as U.S. Attorney in Minnesota.
In one instance during "Operation Fast and Furious," a suspected gun-runner bought 20 AK-47 type rifles, but he "maintained" to law enforcement the weapons "belonged to him," according to a recent filing to Congress by Bill Newell, the head of the Phoenix ATF office at the time. The suspect "was not prohibited by law from purchasing or possessing the firearms," so ATF agents felt they did not have "lawful authority to seize the weapons," according to Newell.
Of nearly 2,000 weapons sold to suspected straw purchasers over several months, the ATF was notified ahead of time to monitor the purchase of only about 300 firearms, Newell said. In fact, of the 2,000 weapons sold to suspects, as many as 400 of them were sold before "Fast and Furious" ever launched. Still, Newell acknowledged ATF "was able to proactively and lawfully" seize only a fifth of the nearly 300 weapons under ATF surveillance.
Many Mexican officials have expressed dismay over the investigation, particularly for allegedly being left in the dark about it. Asked how it all has affected U.S. law enforcement's relationships with their Mexican counterparts, Jones said that is "something we're going to have to rebuild," and, "We know we have work to do."
He said U.S. attorneys along the Southwest border have already met with Mexican officials to help repair any damage.
"Operation Fast and Furious" was not the only investigation during which ATF's Phoenix office let guns allegedly "walk." From 2006 to about the end of 2007, under the Bush administration, "Operation Wide Receiver" investigators "permitted guns to be transferred to suspected gun traffickers and had not interdicted them," according to a current Justice Department official.
The investigation was initiated after ATF "received information about a suspicious purchase of firearms," the official said. But the controversial tactics were only discovered in 2009 after prosecutors began reviewing the case for possible prosecution, resulting in two sets of indictments, according to the official.
On Wednesday, Jones said he is not aware of any other ATF investigations involving alleged "gun walking." He noted he's only been on the job for about 30 days, but he said he "would be surprised" if there were any other cases.
The House Oversight Committee, led by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif, has launched an investigation into "Operation Fast and Furious," and Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee are now calling for a special counsel to investigate statements by Attorney General Eric Holder. A Justice Department spokeswoman insisted Holder has been "consistent and truthful."
Meanwhile, the Justice Department's internal watchdog, the Office of the Inspector General -- or OIG -- has also launched an investigation into the matter.
While announcing the latest personnel changes Wednesday, the ATF said in a statement that "additional staff reassignments may be warranted at the conclusion of the OIG's report."
Lawmakers: Holder received 5 "Fast and Furious" memos in 2010
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder received at least five memos beginning July 2010 on the botched "Fast and Furious" operation, which allowed guns bought by drug straw purchasers to "walk" into Mexico and end up in the hands of criminals, two Republican lawmakers said Thursday.
Sen. Charles Grassley and Rep. Darrell Issa said in a joint statement that Holder received several memos, including four in consecutive weeks, that described the failed strategy of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The reports were sent to Holder by Michael Walther, director of the National Drug Intelligence Center, they said.
In May, Holder told the House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee that he had learned about Fast and Furious - which was launched in 2009 by the ATF's Phoenix office and shut down late last year after guns from the program were linked to the killing of a U.S. border agent - "over the last few weeks."
But the reports sent to Holder in 2010 specifically mentioned that some intermediaries, or straw buyers, were "responsible for the purchase of 1,500 firearms that were then supplied to Mexican drug-trafficking cartels," the statement said.
"With the fairly detailed information that the attorney general read, it seems the logical question for the attorney general after reading in the memo would be 'why haven't we stopped them?'," Grassley said in a statement.
In that regard, both legislators criticized Holder for not coming clean to Congress and the American people about what he and other high-ranking Justice Department officials knew about Fast and Furious.
"The lack of candor and honesty from our nation's chief law enforcement officials in this matter is deeply disturbing," Issa said.
Justice Department officials, meanwhile, have told the media that Holder periodically is briefed on multiple investigations throughout the United States and that the reports he received on Fast and Furious in July 2010 did not explicitly state that ATF agents were letting guns "walk" into Mexico via illegal sales to known straw purchasers at U.S. gun stores.
The botched operation is the subject of separate investigations by Congress and the Justice Department and has led to a personnel shakeup at the ATF.
The idea behind Fast and Furious was to trace the weapons to powerful drug traffickers in Mexico, but once it got underway ATF agents realized they had no dependable way to keep track of the guns, which eventually began appearing at crime scenes on both sides of the border.
The ATF devised the sting due to criticism that its operations for years had focused on building lesser cases against gun runners rather going after the "big fish" behind the weapons purchases.
Authorities lost track of some 2,000 Fast and Furious weapons, which apparently ended up in the hands of drug traffickers, and the scandal over the botched operation sparked friction in U.S.-Mexican relations.
Mexican authorities have said that guns linked to the operation appeared at more than a hundred crime scenes in that country, while two Fast and Furious assault rifles were recovered at the location where U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed last December in southern Arizona.
As part of their probe into Fast and Furious, U.S. prosecutors have brought charges against a score of people, although none is suspected of drug trafficking.
Grassley also said this week that Congress should investigate another similar sting operation dubbed Operation Wide Receiver that the ATF carried out in 2006 and 2007 during former President George W. Bush's administration.
Nine people have been charged with making false statements in the purchase of firearms destined for shipment to Mexico as part of that earlier sting.
Turf battles among drug cartels and clashes between mobsters and security forces have left more than 40,000 dead in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon took office in late 2006.
Calderon says the United States is responsible in large part for the violence because of the high demand for illegal drugs there and the cross-border flow of weapons to the violent cartels.