Top Justice Department officials have settled on a strategy for explaining a botched gun-trafficking probe that includes blaming the now-ousted U.S. attorney in Phoenix.
The department has spent much of the year dealing with questions about federal agents' use of investigative tactics that resulted in the smuggling of firearms into Mexico. The issue is coming to a head Tuesday, when Attorney General Eric Holder is set to answer questions at a Senate hearing.
A hostile reception likely awaits from Republican lawmakers, who have pushed to make Mr. Holder accountable. More than 30 have called for him to resign. . .
Mr. Holder and the Justice Department's criminal division chief, Lanny Breuer, have condemned the practice and said they wouldn't have permitted its use in the Fast and Furious operation.
When word of the tactic first emerged in February, the Justice Department denied to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) that agents allowed suspects to make such purchases and said the ATF always tried to interdict weapons. It acknowledged last week that those statements were misleading.
Officials also made it clear that they blame Dennis Burke, ousted in August by Mr. Holder as U.S. attorney for Arizona, as well as ATF leaders, for providing the incorrect information.
At a Senate hearing Tuesday, Mr. Breuer told Sen. Grassley that "the leadership of the United States Attorney's Office in Arizona" was "adamant about the fact that [the buying and transfer of guns] was not in fact a condoned practice."
Mr. Holder pushed out Mr. Burke in part because officials determined there were lapses of management in his office that led to the Fast and Furious mistakes, people familiar with the matter said.
Chuck Rosenberg, Mr. Burke's attorney, said Mr. Burke didn't cause anyone to mislead Justice headquarters.
"Dennis has cooperated with the congressional investigation and will continue to do so," Mr. Rosenberg said.
Mr. Burke has said he didn't know about the specific tactics being used in Fast and Furious, but he has been apologetic about his role.
"I take responsibility," Mr. Burke told investigators from the offices of Sen. Grassley and Rep. Darrell Issa of California, who is leading the probe for House Republicans.
In initial responses to queries about the practice, "I was very defensive of our office and the case," Mr. Burke told the congressional investigators. He added later, "I regret that I was strident."
Supporters of Mr. Burke describe him as ethical and a hands-on manager. He has served Democratic leaders in Phoenix and Washington, including a role in the Clinton White House.
Mr. Holder himself has praised the U.S. attorney for his handling of cases resulting from the January shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
A second part of the Holder defense is to point to the Bush administration's Wide Receiver operation to show that the practice didn't originate in the Obama Justice Department.
Documents released to lawmakers last week show that in 2007, then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey received briefing papers on the subject.
A draft of the briefing for Mr. Mukasey ahead of a meeting with his Mexican counterpart described "the first-ever attempt to have a controlled delivery of weapons being smuggled into Mexico by a major arms trafficker."
The document says the operation failed, in part because agents weren't able to keep track of the smugglers.
An ATF official reviewing the document said "first-ever" should be removed because, he said, "There have been cases in the past where we have walked guns." A spokesman for Mr. Mukasey said he wasn't available to comment.
In an interview last week, Mr. Breuer, the criminal division chief, said he learned about Wide Receiver last year and regretted not doing more to make sure that the practice wasn't repeated.
He also said he tried to keep a low profile for Wide Receiver to avoid embarrassing the ATF.
Mr. Grassley said attempts to blame the Bush administration overlook the fact that Mr. Breuer revived the prosecution of suspects in Wide Receiver.
"Senior Justice Department officials need to take responsibility for giving that kind of a green light to those responsible for gun-walking in Wide Receiver without sufficient oversight and for watching guns walk on a much larger scale in Fast and Furious," Mr. Grassley said.
Monday, November 7, 2011
The DOJ/White House Scandal Deflection Two-Step: It was those evil people in Phoenix who conned us. Plus, George Bush did it too.
A tip of the boonie hat and deep genuflection to Irregular Michael for forwarding the text of the Wall Street Journal article by Evan Perez: