Jason Weinstein’s Justice Department career was derailed by ‘Fast and Furious’

Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post - Jason Weinstein resigned from the Justice Department amid the investigation into Operation: “Fast and Furious,” a federal probe that went after weapons trafficking to drug rings.

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Jason M. Weinstein sat alone in his office at the Justice Department one night in August, checking e-mail after a family vacation in Wyoming. At this point, 2012 had been an unusual year for the career prosecutor-turned-political-appointee.

Weinstein’s name had surfaced in a scandal known as “Fast and Furious,” in which federal agents in Arizona monitored sales of guns to suspected firearms smugglers but didn’t immediately confiscate the weapons. In theory, the strategy was meant to allow the feds to trace the guns to the ringleaders and drug cartel bosses in Mexico.

The operation went awry when more than 2,000 U.S.-purchased weapons hit the streets of Mexico and the United States. Two of the guns were found at the scene of the killing of a U.S. Border Patrol agent.

Although Weinstein had no role in devising the tactics and had no supervisory authority over Fast and Furious, he had signed documents that helped the agents proceed with their operation.

On Capitol Hill, the investigation had taken on predictable and in­trac­table political dynamics. Democrats concluded that no high-level officials at the Justice Department, including Weinstein, were to blame for the “gun-walking” scheme; Republicans accused Weinstein of knowingly abetting the flawed operation.

Many had dismissed the partisan wrangling and looked to the respected Office of Inspector General at the Justice Department to ferret out the facts.

There, waiting for Weinstein in his e-mail inbox on that August night, was a draft copy of the long-awaited IG report. Weinstein, 44, wasn’t sure what to expect when he typed Ctl+F to search for his name.

He was shocked by what came up on his screen.

Weinstein’s experience has become something of a cautionary tale about the risks and responsibilities of occupying a relatively high-level government post. And his past 18 months illustrate what it’s like to be swept up in the vortex of a Washington scandal that often inflicts damage on central figures and tangential players alike.

A high achiever

Weinstein came to Washington as a teenager in 1982 to compete in the National Spelling Bee, having won the regional championship in San Antonio. The son of a hospital administrator and a nurse, he was a high achiever from the get-go. He also was captain of the math and debate teams in high school.

Then he was off to Princeton, where he became student body president and led campaigns to build a new student center and to stop the Central Intelligence Agency from recruiting on campus until it changed its policy that prevented gays and lesbians from being hired.

From Weinstein’s first criminal law class at George Washington University, he was intent on becoming a prosecutor. He joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York and spent three years learning the fundamentals of running wiretaps and gun cases. He moved to Montgomery County after becoming engaged to a woman who was working for a local conservation organization.

Commuting to his new job in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baltimore, Weinstein built a reputation as a relentless, innovative prosecutor. As violent-crimes chief, he took on some of Baltimore’s most notorious drug dealers and gang members by working with local police to get guns out of the wrong hands.

“He was invested in the fight to make Baltimore’s citizens safe in a way few people ever are,” retired city police commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld wrote in a letter of support of Weinstein that was submitted to the Justice Department’s inspector general.

Having been recommended by a former Maryland prosecutor to the chief of the Justice Department’s criminal division in 2009, Weinstein was excited about trying to replicate the work he’d done in Baltimore on a national level. This was true even though it meant trading his post as a career prosecutor and entering the ranks of political appointees.

Learning of ‘Fast and Furious’

Weinstein learned of “Operation Fast and Furious” almost by accident.

On an airplane to Interpol in spring 2010, Weinstein reviewed a prosecution memo for a case in Arizona. A deputy assistant attorney general in the criminal division, Weinstein realized then that Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agents in Tucson had monitored, but not seized, hundreds of firearms sold to suspected arms traffickers.

Weinstein was “stunned,” he told colleagues in an April 2010 e-mail, that agents in the case known as “Operation Wide Receiver” had “let this many guns walk” into Mexico.

Weinstein relayed his concerns to his boss, Lanny A. Breuer, chief of the criminal division. At Breuer’s direction, he met with senior ATF officials in Washington. Weinstein later told the inspector general’s office that he thought his ATF counterparts were as disturbed by the tactic as he was. He also came away with the strong impression that Wide Receiver was an aberration and would never be repeated. Shortly thereafter, he heard of another gun case that was being run out of the same ATF office in Phoenix: Operation Fast and Furious.

A few days later, Weinstein heard from William McMahon — one of the D.C.-based ATF officials who oversaw the western region, including Arizona.

McMahon said that agents running the Fast and Furious investigation would benefit if the department could expedite its review of wiretap applications. In their initial conversation, Weinstein later told the IG, McMahon gave him the clear impression that agents in Fast and Furious were aggressively seizing guns and that it was “completely different” from Wide Receiver.

Two weeks later, Weinstein received the first of three wiretap applications he would review for Fast and Furious. He said that following years of department practice, he signed off after reading summary memos prepared by lawyers in the Office of Enforcement Operations. He did not read the supporting affidavits. To do so would have slowed approval of time-sensitive wiretaps to a standstill and become his full-time job, Weinstein said. Had he done so in this case, he would have read about specific numbers of U.S.-purchased firearms that were being recovered in Mexico.

That fall, a two-sentence e-mail would cause him a different kind of distress.

One of the lawyers he supervised was drafting indictments against traffickers in Operation Wide Receiver — the Bush-era case in which Weinstein had detected guns “walking.” An indictment from the Fast and Furious case was also in the works.

Thinking ahead, Weinstein asked James Trusty, head of the criminal division’s gang unit and another former Maryland prosecutor, how best to announce indictments in both of the high-profile cases coming out of Arizona.

“Do you think we should try to have Lanny [Breuer] participate in press when Fast and Furious and [the] Tucson case are unsealed?” Weinstein asked in an e-mail. “It’s a tricky case given the number of guns that have walked but it is a significant set of prosecutions.”

Weinstein — a brilliant student, gifted lawyer and methodical prosecutor — had spent a career steeped in nuance. He’d later regret using the pronoun “it.” (Through a spokeswoman, Breuer declined to comment.)

Border agent’s fatal shooting

Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was fatally shot during a firefight with suspected illegal immigrants in the Arizona desert in December 2010. Word quickly spread within ATF that two of the assault rifles found at the scene matched guns bought by a Fast and Furious suspect at a Phoenix-area gun store.

Whistleblowing ATF agents contacted the office of Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. The next month, Grassley wrote to Justice to ask whether their allegations of gun-walking were true.

Weinstein, along with a handful of other Justice Department lawyers, agreed to help prepare a response. Trading drafts and editing suggestions by e-mail, Weinstein and others at Justice relied on information they gathered from at least nine officials from ATF and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona. All insisted that guns had not “walked.”

“ATF makes every effort to interdict weapons that have been purchased illegally and prevent their transportation to Mexico,” the department replied in February 2011.

The information turned out to be wrong. ATF had not made “every effort” to seize firearms — not in Fast and Furious or in Wide Receiver. Justice would eventually retract the letter.

On the Hill, Grassley joined with Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, to begin an aggressive investigation.

That fall, the committee released thousands of subpoenaed documents that included Weinstein’s e-mail to Trusty that said: “It’s a tricky case given the number of guns that have walked but it is a significant set of prosecutions.”

To Republican critics, the “it” in the e-mail implied that top Justice officials had known about gun-walking in Operation Fast and Furious one year earlier, despite their contrary assertions to Congress.

At the time, a department spokesperson explained that the “it” in Weinstein’s message had referred to Operation Wide Receiver, the Bush-era case — not to Fast and Furious.

Weinstein recalled joking with friends that he “got more press for a bad pronoun reference in one e-mail than all the murder cases in my career.”

By the time Weinstein was called to answer questions from Issa’s House committee last January, the U.S. Attorney in Phoenix had resigned and the head of ATF had been reassigned.

Committee Democrats released a report a few weeks later that found no evidence that senior Justice officials had authorized or condoned gun-walking. Had they learned of the tactics, “they would have shut it down,” the report said.

“The reality is Mr. Weinstein was never in the chain of command in the decision-making process about gun-walking,” said a Democratic committee staffer involved in the investigation.

The next day, Republicans issued their report that included a section entitled: “Jason Weinstein Knew About Illegal Activity Yet Failed to Stop It.” The report focused on Weinstein’s role in preparing the Feb. 4, 2011, letter to Congress and his review of the wiretap applications.

The report concluded that given what Weinstein knew about the earlier Operation Wide Receiver, he should have raised similar concerns about Fast and Furious. Both operations, the report noted, had been run by Bill Newell, the head of ATF’s Phoenix office.

“Jason Weinstein didn’t just mess up an opportunity to stop Fast and Furious,” said Frederick Hill, a spokesman for the committee. “He bought hook, line and sinker everything the people down in Arizona who had been running this operation wanted to feed him.”

At the same time, the Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, was conducting his review of Fast and Furious. For 15 hours over two days last May, Weinstein answered questions from investigators. He was told that he was not a subject of the investigation, but he said he left the interviews with an unsettled feeling.

The inspector general’s report

When he typed Ctl+F in his office on the second floor of main Justice that day in August, his name came up so many times that he lost count. He didn’t sleep well that night, even worse than usual for the father of three young children.

By 7 the next morning, he had e-mailed his old boss, Michael Bromwich, a former Justice Department inspector general who had hired Weinstein in the 1990s, to represent him. Together, they would wage a campaign to try to clear Weinstein’s name.

Weinstein assembled a 32-page refutation of the IG report’s characterization of his role, responsibilities and motivations.

In his formal response to Horowitz, Bromwich wrote that Weinstein was being held to an “impossible standard.” He said Weinstein could not possibly have connected the dots between the two cases because he was repeatedly assured by the people closest to the Fast and Furious investigation, including ATF’s McMahon, that no guns had “walked.”

To do so, Bromwich wrote, would have required an “ability to divine that McMahon was unintentionally conveying inaccurate information about Fast and Furious.”

None of the three deputies who signed off on Fast and Furious wiretap applications saw anything that raised concerns. And the specific numbers of guns mentioned did not necessarily indicate gun-walking, Weinstein told the IG.

“No one could read those summaries and know that they let guns go,” Weinstein said.

In helping draft what turned out to be an inaccurate response to Congress, Weinstein said he had no reason to doubt the people telling him that guns had not walked.

He said the earlier investigation, Wide Receiver, did not cross his mind.

“The notion that I’d in any way tolerate a tactic like this is beyond absurd. I was the only one to raise concerns about the earlier operation,” Weinstein said.

Weinstein knew he’d lost on Sept. 18, the day before the report became public. He read the final version in Bromwich’s office on New York Avenue.

Some changes had been made, but the 471-page report singled out Weinstein as the “most senior person” at Justice who should have recognized that guns were getting into the hands of criminals because similar tactics had been used in the earlier case.

He and others in the department are faulted in the letter-writing process for “too readily” accepting assurances from the people running the investigation and for failing to “develop an independent understanding of the information that was relevant to the allegations.”

The report said Weinstein “failed to act in the best interests of the Department by advocating for ATF rather than responsibly gathering information about its activities.”

Weinstein’s reading of the wiretap cover memos alone, the report says, “should have caused him to read the affidavit and ask questions about the operational details” of Fast and Furious.

As tough as the report was, it did not call for Weinstein’s removal. Breuer, the criminal division chief, urged him to stay on the job, Weinstein said. But Weinstein resigned the morning the report came out.

“I didn’t want to be a distraction, and I needed the freedom to fight back,” he said in an interview in October. “It was surreal. You feel like you’re watching it on TV happen to someone else.”

Weinstein’s concern about becoming a distraction to Justice seemed to be validated the day after the report was released as he watched Issa during a televised hearing: “Well, Jason Weinstein should have been gone a year and a half ago. The housecleaning should have happened a year and a half ago.”

Saying goodbye

At the Elephant and Castle pub across Pennsylvania Avenue from the Justice Department, about 75 former co-workers gathered one brisk evening days after Thanksgiving to toast Weinstein. Breuer served as master of ceremonies, several in attendance said.

As guests munched on potato skins and wings at a cash bar, there were lengthy, upbeat tributes to Weinstein’s work.

No one mentioned Fast and Furious.

Many of Weinstein’s former colleagues — federal law enforcement agents, prosecutors and other lawyers — say they are distraught about his public-service career being cut short. The portrayal of Weinstein on the Hill and in the inspector general report is at odds with the person they know.

“This bears no resemblance to the Jason that I know and what he would have done and what I’ve seen him do over and over again,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Smith, who prosecuted a notorious hitman with Weinstein in Baltimore. “He’s one of those people who instinctively always knows right from wrong.”

After he resigned, it took Weinstein two weeks to return e-mails and phone messages from former colleagues. He took the time to clean out the garage and get a haircut. He’s looking for a job.

“In a thousand years, you don’t expect this phase of your career to end this way,” Weinstein said. “But there’s a badge of honor for surviving these things, and I’m determined to earn it.”

Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

 
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