Atty. Gen. Eric Holder on Tuesday called a botched gun-tracking scheme hatched by officials with the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on the Southwest border “flawed in its concept, and flawed in its execution” in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The nation’s top law enforcement officer appeared to retreat from earlier testimony that he first learned of the operation, known as Fast and Furious, in the time leading up to a May House hearing, saying instead that he first became aware of some details "at the beginning of this year."
Holder suggested the earlier statement was a broad estimate and a reference to when he'd learned of the operational details of the sting.
He testified Tuesday for a third time on the operation, which allowed more than 2,000 guns to be sold illegally and “walked” into Mexico – all with the hopes of tracking the weapons to cartels.
Agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives lost track of many of the weapons. The guns later showed up at nearly 200 of crime scenes in Mexico and 11 in the U.S. Two were recovered at the scene of a U.S. Border Patrol agent's slaying in Arizona in December.
Holder faced tough questioning from Republicans on the committee who maintain that administration officials stonewalled when asked about the operation and misled committee staff.
“The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter how many laws we pass if those responsible for enforcing them refuse to do their duty—as was the case in Fast and Furious,” Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the committee, said in a prepared statement.
Justice Department officials have said repeatedly that they knew nothing of Fast and Furious tactics until ATF whistle-blowers went public this year.
Congressional investigators argue that Holder’s staff was briefed on the existence of the operation three times before then. Justice officials say the attorney general was not made aware of the details, particularly of the fact that guns were being allowed to cross the border.
"I want to be clear: Any instance of so-called 'gun walking' is unacceptable," Holder said on Tuesday. He pushed back against critics who have blasted his handling of the operation.
"I am determined to ensure that our shared concerns about Operation Fast and Furious lead to more than headline-grabbing Washington 'gotcha' games and cynical political point-scoring," he said.
Holder sought to draw attention to the broader problem of gun smuggling on the Mexican border, saying it has led to the 40,000 deaths in the last five years.
"The mistakes of Operation Fast and Furious, serious though they were, should not deter or distract us from our critical mission to disrupt the dangerous flow of firearms along our Southwest Border," he said.