WASHINGTON — Attorney General Eric Holder disavowed the controversial Fast and Furious program Tuesday, calling the practice of federal agents letting U.S. guns illegally enter Mexico "unacceptable" during a sometimes tense Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Holder, under tremendous pressure from Congress over the gun walking operation on the Mexican border, said he regretted that his staffers hadn't alerted him to the policy sooner but that it was a "flawed response to and not the cause of" the gun flow to Mexico.
"I want to be clear: Any instance of so-called gun walking is unacceptable," Holder said, calling Fast and Furious "flawed in concept as well as in execution."
"Unfortunately, we will feel its effects for years to come as guns that were lost during this operation continue to show up at crimes scenes both here and in Mexico," he added. "This should never have happened. And it must never happen again. "
But Holder was also combative about "overheated rhetoric" from congressional critics of the Arizona-based Fast and Furious program, run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to track U.S. guns, which allowed a few thousand weapons to be delivered to the Mexican drug cartels.
"Of the nearly 94,000 guns that have been recovered and traced in Mexico in recent years, over 64,000 were sourced to the United States," he said. The attention on Fast and Furious comes, he said, as "we are losing the battle to stop the flow of illegal guns to Mexico."
An emotional Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, demanded to know whether Holder had apologized to the family of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, who was killed last December near Tucson, Ariz. The two guns recovered at the crime scene had been purchased under Fast and Furious.
"I certainly regret what happened to agent Brian Terry," Holder said, but he added that "it's not fair to assume that mistakes that happened in Fast and Furious directly led to the death of agent Terry."
Cornyn was testy with Holder, demanding to know whether the attorney general knew the difference between the Fast and Furious program and an earlier one in the Bush administration — Operation Wide Receiver — in which Mexico participated and retrieved the guns once they crossed the border. As Holder started to answer, Cornyn said, "Are you winging this or do you actually know?" Holder said he knew.
Cornyn tried to show in an elaborate chart that Holder had gotten emails and reports about Fast and Furious, but Holder said the chart was inaccurate and that the reports had gone to lower-level staffers.
"Can you name me one person who's been held accountable for this Fast and Furious operation?" Cornyn asked. "Just one in the Department of Justice?"
Holder replied, "Well, we have made a number of changes with regard to personnel both in the Phoenix U.S. Attorney's Office, also at the ATF headquarters here. I will certainly await the report that comes out of the inspector general. And I will assure you and the American people that people will be held accountable for any mistakes that were made in connection with Fast and Furious."
Republicans in the House of Representatives have been especially aggressive on the issue, and Holder is expected to testify about Fast and Furious before the House Judiciary Committee on Dec. 8. So far, 36 House members have called for Holder to resign.
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