WASHINGTON — Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday acknowledged serious mistakes in an arms trafficking probe that allowed AK-47s and other weapons to leak into the black market, but he insisted the Justice Department was taking steps to ensure that never happens again.
Under pointed questioning by Republicans, Holder also expressed regret that the Justice Department had denied allegations of "gun walking" in a letter to Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley sent earlier this year.
"Unfortunately, we will feel its effects for years to come as guns that were lost during this operation continue to show up at crime scenes both here and in Mexico," Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee of the investigation, known as "Operation Fast and Furious."
Grassley, the panel's top Republican, said the operation represented an "utter failure" by federal law enforcement officials to enforce existing gun laws.
The purchases of more than 2,000 weapons aroused the suspicion of Fast and Furious investigators, but the suspected "straw" buyers of those guns were allowed to walk out of Phoenix-area gun shops with AK-47s and other weapons.
The goal was to track those weapons to gun-trafficking ring leaders, suspected to include Mexican drug lords, who had long eluded prosecution. But agents lost track of about 1,400 of the guns.
The letter from the Justice Department to Grassley in February said federal agents make "every effort" to intercept weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico. Holder said the letter was based on information the Justice Department received from the U.S. Attorney's office in Phoenix and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Washington.