By Donna Smith
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The failed gun-running probe known as "Fast and Furious" was marred by missteps and an "inherently reckless strategy" from the beginning, said a report released on Tuesday by congressional Republicans.
The Justice Department dismissed the report released by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa and Senator Charles Grassley. Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said it reiterated "distortions and now-debunked conspiracy theories."
The report is the first installment of a three-part series on the program that has been a main focus of Republican attacks on the Obama administration's law-enforcement record.
The Republican-led House of Representatives in June cited U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over thousands of pages of documents related to the program.
Tuesday's report focused on the conduct of the law-enforcement officials directly in charge of the operation, which was intended to track weapons sold in Arizona that were suspected of being transported to dangerous drug cartels in Mexico.
"From the outset, the case was marred by missteps, poor judgments, and an inherently reckless strategy," the report said.
Officials of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) lost track of many weapons. Some of the weapons were allowed to "walk" into Mexico.
The operation became public when two guns found at the scene along the Arizona border with Mexico where U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed in December 2010 were traced back to "Fast and Furious."
The report said efforts in 2009 by President Barack Obama's administration to resurrect and prosecute an old gun-running case may have "emboldened" William Newell, the special agent in charge of the Phoenix Field Division for ATF, to broaden the operation and go for the "big fish," the report said.
"In Operation Fast and Furious, he saw an opportunity to run a large scale operation intended to bring down an entire gun trafficking network -- now with the support of the upper echelons of the Justice Department in Washington, D.C.," the report concluded.
"Newell had an audacious goal. He intended to dismantle the U.S.-based gun trafficking network that supplied the formidable Mexican Sinaloa Cartel."
Newell and others involved in the case were reassigned to ATF headquarters in Washington.
Newell's attorney, Paul Pelletier, said there was never a plan or tactic to "walk guns" and that ATF agents seized weapons when they were lawfully permitted to do so.
He accused Republican lawmakers leading the congressional investigation of engaging in a political witch-hunt that demeans "dedicated law enforcement officers."
Nearly 2,000 weapons were bought in Operation Fast and Furious, the report said, and so-called straw purchasers, who bought the weapons on behalf of ATF, spent about $1.25 million in cash at various firearms retailers from October 2009 to October 2010.
"Despite this vast amount of money being spent by straw buyers, some of whom were on public assistance, ATF failed to confront the vast majority of them," it said.
Justice Department's Schmaler said the officials involved in the case have been removed and reassigned and that reforms were instituted at ATF to provide stronger oversight and prevent similar tactics from being used again.
The White House has asserted executive privilege over the documents withheld by Holder. The House has approved a resolution allowing Issa to pursue a civil court case to try to compel the administration to release the documents. No date has been set for filing that civil complaint, an Issa spokesman said.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)