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Senator Calls For Justice's Criminal Division Chief To Step Down

Iowa Republican Charles Grassley took to the Senate floor Wednesday to declare that a senior Justice Department official "needs to go immediately" for allegedly misleading Congress in its 11-month-old investigation of a gun trafficking operation gone bad.

"It's past time for accountability at the senior levels of the Justice Department," Grassley said. "That accountability needs to start with the head of the criminal division, Lanny Breuer."

In a 15-minute speech, Grassley set out two main reasons for demanding Breuer's ouster.

First, he said, Breuer showed a "complete lack of judgment" by failing to notify his superiors immediately in 2010 when he discovered that agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, working during the Bush administration, had lost track of weapons in an effort to try to build cases against violent Mexican drug cartels.

Last month, speaking before Congress, Breuer apologized for the lapse and for failing to "make a connection" between that operation, known as "Wide Receiver," and similar tactics by which ATF agents lost track of as many as 2,000 guns in the Obama operation known as "Fast and Furious." Some of those guns turned up at crime scenes on both sides of the Southwest border, including near the body of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, who was slain by bandits in December 2010.

It appears, Grassley said, that Breuer was more concerned about protecting the Justice Department from embarrassment than getting to the root of lapses at the ATF. "For 18 months, the embarrassing truth about ATF gun walking...and Breuer's knowledge of it was successfully hidden," Grassley said. "It only came out because of the congressional investigation into gun walking in Fast and Furious."

The department's criminal division came under congressional scrutiny all over again last Friday, when the Justice Department produced new email messages and internal documents showing that Breuer received at least four drafts of a Feb. 4, 2011, letter to Congress that has since been withdrawn because it contains misleading and inaccurate statements about ATF tactics. Breuer sent a couple of the messages to his personal email account, but he says he's not certain he actually read the documents because he was on the road and has a busy schedule.

Second, Grassley said, "It just isn't credible that someone like Mr. Breuer would forget about his involvement in a matter like this. Mr. Breuer's failure to be candid and forthcoming before this body irreparably harms his credibility....If you can't be straight with the Congress, you don't need to be running the criminal division. It's time to stop spinning and start taking responsibility."

Justice Department officials, speaking not for attribution to reporters Friday, said their review had put responsibility for the inaccuracies in the Feb. 4, 2011, letter on the ATF and the U.S. Attorney's office in Arizona. Both units have undergone shakeups in management since lawmakers turned up the heat; the Justice Department inspector general is also investigating.

The Justice Department had no immediate comment on Grassley's statements. But Breuer told NPR earlier this year that he hoped the controversy would focus attention the bigger problem of lax gun laws, the flow of weapons across the border, and their use in widespread violence in Mexico.

The issue will come up again Thursday morning, when Attorney General Eric Holder testifies before the House Judiciary Committee.

Update at 4:32 p.m. ET. Justice Responds:

A spokesman for the Department of Justice sent us a statement defending Breuer. The spokesman said Breuer has already admitted his mistake to Congress. The spokesman adds:

"As Assistant Attorney General Breuer has also told Congress, he did not participate in the drafting of the Feb 4th letter and does not recall reviewing it before it was sent.

"The Criminal Division, under Assistant Attorney General Breuer's leadership, has made critical progress in our fight against violent crime along the Southwest Border. Among many other accomplishments, the Division has led important prosecutions against high-ranking gang members, secured the extradition of dangerous fugitives and spearheaded efforts with our Mexican partners to enhance their own law enforcement capacity."

Update at 5:58 p.m. ET. More Support For Breuer:

New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer issued a statement of support Wednesday, and Michael Chertoff, former chief of the criminal division at Justice during the Bush Administration, also spoke up to defend Breuer.

"I know him to be a really able and experienced prosecutor of great integrity," Chertoff said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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