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Senators Grill Justice Official On ATF Operations


You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

A senior Justice Department official appeared on Capitol Hill today to talk about fighting international organized crime. But Senators instead wanted to hear why he hadn't come forward earlier with revelations that federal agents had used questionable tactics in a gun trafficking operation.

Now, we're not talking about Fast and Furious. That's the Obama administration effort that got attention all over the world after two guns tied to the program were found near the body of a U.S. Border Patrol agent. This is a similar program started during the Bush administration that sent hundreds of weapons into Mexico. The idea behind it, as with Fast and Furious, was to follow the guns to drug cartels and make cases against them. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports on today's hearing.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: It wasn't long before U.S. Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, who's been demanding accountability for the botched gun operations, got his turn to ask questions of the Justice Department's criminal division chief. Here's Grassley putting Lanny Breuer on the hot seat over a letter the department sent him back in February.

SENATOR CHARLES GRASSLEY: …where it reads, quote, "ATF makes every effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico," end of quote. That statement is absolutely false, and you admitted as much last night as correct, yes?

LANNY BREUER: Yes, senator. What I...

GRASSLEY: OK. That's all I need to know, if that's correct.

JOHNSON: The Justice Department had disclosed to Congress and a group of reporters the day before that Breuer found out last year that agents at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms or ATF had let guns cross the border five years ago even though they had the ability and the legal authority to intercept them. But Breuer says he didn't say anything at the time.

BREUER: If I had known then what I know now, I, of course, would have told the deputy and the attorney general.

JOHNSON: Breuer told senators he should have made a connection between bad tactics he uncovered in that old Bush administration case and the controversial operation on President Obama's watch known as Fast and Furious.

BREUER: I should have back in April of 2010 drawn that connection. I've expressed that regret first personally to the attorney general of the United States, and then I determined that I should do it publicly as well.

JOHNSON: Dianne Feinstein, a Democratic senator from California, told Breuer she wanted to focus on something constructive.

SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN: There's been a lot said about Fast and Furious. And perhaps, mistakes were made, but I think this hunt for blame doesn't really speak about the problem. And the problem is anybody can walk in and buy anything - .50 caliber weapons, sniper weapons - buy them in large amounts.

JOHNSON: Breuer agreed he asked lawmakers for tools that would let the ATF know when people buy multiple semi-assault weapons, which he says aren't generally used by hunters or sportsmen. Feinstein says she worries about all those weapons.

FEINSTEIN: When these guns go to the wrong places, scores of deaths result.

JOHNSON: Agents at the ATF and leaders at the Justice Department say they could be tracking the guns that went awry in the botched law enforcement operations for years. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.