How Eric Holder and the Justice Department Failed Each Other

Stripped of its political overtones, the Fast and Furious gun scandal was about unprofessional conduct by government officials.

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Holder testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee in June. (Reuters)

In the end, the much-heralded, much-maligned Office of the Inspector General's report on the "Fast and Furious" gun scandal tells us what we already know: Attorney General Eric Holder should resign if President Barack Obama wins another term. Even viewing the documents and investigation in a light most favorable to the current head of the Justice Department, even discounting the conspiracy theories offered by the Administration's most ardent critics, the Inspector General's report tells us that Holder ultimately failed to do what he absolutely had to do at Justice when he succeeded caretaker Attorney General Michael Mukasey in early 2009.

The prime directive -- then and now -- was to restore more professionalism to the Department after years of partisan abuse and misuse by the Bush Administration. It's been five years, and many smart people already have forgotten, but the Justice Department under the reign of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was an outright catastrophe, with episodes including but not limited to the U.S. Attorney scandal. Mukasey began the job of cleaning it up during his brief tenure following Gonzales. But it was Holder's responsibility, when he got the job in January 2009, to ensure that the Department, at a minimum, no longer did anything patently stupid.

That's not a high standard. And yet Holder's Justice Department in this regard has failed to meet it. Whatever else you want to say about "Operation Fast and Furious," whatever else you want to say about a plan to allow massive gun trafficking in order to stop massive gun trafficking, whatever else you want to say about Republican complicity on the gun front in Mexico, the program itself was demonstrably stupid. Here's how the DOJ's Inspector General, Michael E. Horowitz, put it this week in a summary to his 471-page report:

We concluded that both Operation Wide Receiver and Operation Fast and Furious were seriously flawed and supervised irresponsibly by ATF's Phoenix Field Division and the U.S. Attorney's Office, most significantly in their failure to adequately consider the risk to the public safety in the United States and Mexico. Both investigations sought to identify the higher reaches of firearms trafficking networks by deferring any overt law enforcement action against the individual straw purchasers -- such as making arrests or seizing firearms -- even when there was sufficient evidence to do so. The risk to public safety was immediately evident in both investigations. Almost from the outset of each case, ATF agents learned that the purchases were financed by violent Mexican drug trafficking organizations and that the firearms were destined for Mexico.

Yet, in Operation Fast and Furious, we found that no one responsible for the case at either the ATF Phoenix Field Division or the U.S. Attorney's Office raised a serious question or concern about the government not taking earlier measures to disrupt a trafficking operation that continued to purchase firearms with impunity for many months. We also did not find persuasive evidence that any supervisor in Phoenix, at either the U.S. Attorney's Office or ATF, raised serious questions or concerns about the risk to public safety posed by the continuing firearms purchases or by the delay in arresting individuals who were engaging in the trafficking. This failure reflected a significant lack of oversight and urgency by both ATF and the U.S. Attorney's Office, and a disregard by both for the safety of individuals in the United States and Mexico.

This wasn't supposed to happen during an Administration run by a former constitutional law professor known for his critical questioning of subordinates during staff meetings. And it certainly wasn't supposed to happen to a Justice Department run by a seasoned federal lawyer, a consummate Washington insider, whose whole career leading up to his nomination as Attorney General was designed to reassure us that, if he didn't know all the answers, at least he knew when and how to ask all the right questions. Yet, evidently, no one of rank or import asked those vital questions as Fast and Furious proceeded.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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