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'Fast And Furious' Operation Blasted On Capitol Hill

On Wednesday a government watchdog issued a report finding widespread failures with the government's "Fast and Furious" gun trafficking operation. On Thursday, the watchdog at the Justice Department, Inspector General Michael Horowitz, told a House panel that federal agents and prosecutors failed to protect public safety — and their bosses didn't pay enough attention.

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Federal agents and prosecutors were blinded to public safety risks and higher-ups didn't pay enough attention. That was the message today from Inspector General Michael Horowitz speaking before a House panel. His appearance comes one day after his office released a scathing report that found widespread failure with the Justice Department's Fast and Furious gun trafficking operation.

NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Utah Republican lawmaker Jason Chaffetz started the day by reciting the ugly fallout from the Fast and Furious scandal.

REPRESENTATIVE JASON CHAFFETZ: Nearly 2,000 AK-47s released, hundreds of dead Mexicans, a Mexican helicopter shot down at one point, a dead Border Patrol agent, hundreds of guns that are still unaccounted for, untold numbers of crimes have been committed with these guns and an attorney general whose best guess and best argument is that - is a plea of ignorance.

JOHNSON: The Justice Department inspector general spent 19 months investigating what went wrong with the flawed gun trafficking operation. Michael Horowitz said agents at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and prosecutors in Arizona blew right past the risks of letting guns go south of the border because they wanted to target kingpins in a violent Mexican drug cartel.

MICHAEL HOROWITZ: The decision-making that justified what was going on just failed in the primary mission of law enforcement, which was to protect the public.

JOHNSON: Horowitz had plenty to say about failures by managers at the ATF in Washington, too.

HOROWITZ: The fact that the deputy director could see the need for an exit strategy in March of 2010, and not receive it and review it until 2011, I think speaks volumes about what happened here in terms of failures of oversight.

JOHNSON: The inspector general said he found no evidence Attorney General Eric Holder knew about the flow of guns. But he offered a sideways critique of a management style that insulated the nation's top law enforcement officer.

HOROWITZ: We struggle to understand how an operation of this size, of this importance, that impacted another country like it did, could not have been briefed up to the Attorney General of the United States. It should have been, in our view.

JOHNSON: And Horowitz said when two weapons traced to Fast and Furious were found where U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry died in December 2010, no one told the attorney general.

Trey Gowdy, a Republican lawmaker from South Carolina, shook his head.

REPRESENTATIVE TREY GOWDY: When you have a dead law enforcement officer, the next words out of your mouth are, I want to know everything there possibly is to know about how this happened.

JOHNSON: Brian Terry's family still has lots of questions, says Ron Barber, a Democrat from Arizona who met with them this week.

REPRESENTATIVE RON BARBER: The family believes, and I agree with them, that they may well have been deliberately kept in the dark about Brian's death and the circumstances surrounding it.

JOHNSON: The inspector general recommended that 14 agents and lawyers face possible discipline for Fast and Furious. The former leader of the ATF retired minutes after the critical report went public, and a senior lawyer at the Justice Department quit.

But that's not enough for California Republican Darrell Issa, who leads the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

REPRESENTATIVE DARRELL ISSA: We expect that all 14 would find a way to find appropriate new occupations, ones in which their poor judgment or lack of dedication or unwillingness to actually read documents they were required to read, would not be held accountable.

JOHNSON: The internal discipline process at the Justice Department will proceed largely in secret for now. And the book on Fast and Furious isn't quite over. The inspector general is still investigating retaliation against people at ATF who blew the whistle on the scandal.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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